What was the first rock n roll record to receive a Grammy Award for Record of the Year? This is a trivia question, that like many trivia questions, has an answer with complex ramifications. And, of course, it is a trivia question whose answer can be debated, because "rock n roll" is hard to define. So if I state that the first rock record to win a Grammy for "Record of the Year" was "Up, Up and Away", by soul/R&B group The Fifth Dimension, a reader might respond that that is not really a rock band singing a rock song. But the song has a guitar and drums and has some type of rock sound to it, and was also significantly the first winner of the award from African-American artists. The Grammies had only been around for ten years, and in there first decade, the award winners (and most of the nominees) were given to what we would now call easy listening music: Herb Albert, Frank Mancini, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra were indicative of who were winning the awards before the 1968 season, when the Fifth Dimension won the award for "Up, Up and Away".
The song itself is pretty simple to explain: written by songwriter Jimmy Webb, it is a happy song, lushily sung, about going on a hot air balloon flight together. Even when it was recorded and released, in 1967, when talk about "going on trips" and flying could be seen as having double meanings, it was innocent. It sounded like something that could be on Sesame Street, only less offensive. The singers have great range and harmonize and solo perfectly. Surprisingly, I was not familiar with this song. Despite listening to hundreds of hours of Oldies Radio as a child and teenager, which specialized in upbeat, non-offensive music from the 60s, I can't remember this song being a regular on the playlists of that format. Which made me find its status as the first rock song to get the Grammy Award so interesting.
There are layers to unpack. The first layer is that the Grammy's have always been conservative in their musical taste, but that to award this song an award ahead of The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Supremes, The Beach Boys or Bob Dylan seems to work out as a clueless understanding of what rock music was. It seems like a form of tokenism towards the entire genre: the academy knew that kids liked those guitars and "trippy" lyrics and outfits, so they selected a rock song that was as close to the easy listening that suburbanites would listen to over cocktails as they could get. This year, The Beatles were the first rock group to win Album of the Year for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but they would never win an award for Record of the Year. Of the artists who were inventing the hard rock idiom and pushing limits at the time this was released, it would be decades before two of them--- Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana--- were recognized for a Record of the Year.
But let us peel back another layer. There is a discussion in music criticism of what is called "rockism", the belief that singers with guitars, singing introspective, rebellious or angry lyrics, are the standard by which "serious music" should be judged. One of the reasons this viewpoint is criticized is that it often has racist overtones: the white singer-songwriter and instrumentalist is more "serious" than the black vocal group, singing shorter songs with romantic themes. My reaction that this song seems to have won ahead of much better music rests on the assumption that vocalists are less skilled or artistic than instrumentalists, and that optimism and happiness are less serious emotions than anger or rebellion. The history of the 1960s and of rock music has often placed African-American artists in an auxiliary role, and forgetting this song might be just another piece of bad historical memory.
But then there is another layer beyond that: most of the black popular music of the 1960s, emphasized by MoTown, had an emotional complexity that this song lacked. The fact that black popular music at the time tended towards vocal expressions and topics of romance didn't make it simplistic. Songs like Stop! In the Name of Love, Please Mister Postman and I Second That Emotion were often wry and bittersweet takes on romance, that used sophisticated studio work to highlight the emotional expression of the singer. Compared to MoTown songs, "Up, Up and Away" comes across as a little bit bland. And much like the rock musicians of the time would have to wait decades for musical recognition, it would be decades before any of the soul or R&B musicians of the time (Michael Jackson and Tina Turner) would be recognized by winning a Record of the Year. So even allowing for the fact that the musical history of the 60s is skewed towards white rock artists, this song seems like a surprising choice for winning an award for Record of the Year.
Of course, the Grammy Awards are the Grammy Awards. For motives of both personal preference and commercial interest, they often recognize artists who are stylistically close to the mainstream, and who are familiar inside of the industry. They also seem to have some geographic biases: both Jimmy Webb and The Fifth Dimension were based in Los Angeles, the center of the recording industry. Awards are often arbitrary and don't measure the development of popular music, and they are also harmless. That a happy pop song managed to win an award in early 1968 is not a terrible injustice. However, it is illustrative to look back and see how The Grammy Awards managed to both lag, and misjudge, the evolution of popular music.