During Wednesday night's 10th Annual Music Preservation Project — "Sounds Of Change" — at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles, Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow triumphantly put the evening into perspective. Introducing a video featuring heartrending clips from the Jim Crow era, Portnow noted that when The Recording Academy was established in 1958, many black Americans had little hope of voting in an election. The idea of an African American presidential candidate was unimaginable.
"But it's not now," Portnow said, referencing presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
Amidst the backdrop of a dramatic U.S. election marked by public pleas for reforms, "Sounds Of Change" celebrated music's formidable role in shaping and reflecting society, culture and politics. Hosted by the GRAMMY Foundation, and sponsored by AARP, the event featured live performances by Natasha Bedingfield, DJ Hapa, Chrisette Michele, Ryan Shaw and Musiq Soulchild, all the while reminding attendees that musical visionaries can rival politicians and industrialists when it comes to driving progress.
To underscore that point, "Sounds Of Change" also included performances by two legends whose recordings and original songs helped bring about considerable shifts in world culture. Rock and roll pioneer and GRAMMY winner Jerry Lee Lewis performed an electrifying version of his 1957 classic, "Great Balls Of Fire," a tune whose revolutionary fusion of supercharged country & western and R&B panicked white parents fearful of race mixing.
It seemed only fitting that Lewis should be followed on stage by one of his many musical disciples — namely, former Creedence Clearwater Revival singer/songwriter and solo artist John Fogerty. Looking like a rakish Southern gentleman in a blue velvet jacket and trim-fitting jeans, Fogerty delivered a poignant acoustic solo version of "Déjà Vu (All Over Again)," the title track from his 2004 album. Listening to the song's anti-war lyrics, it became clear that Fogerty's penchant for sharp social commentary is still intact: "Day by day we count the dead and dying/Ship the bodies home while the networks all keep score."
Kicking up the intensity (and volume), Fogerty donned his Gibson Les Paul electric guitar and reeled off performances of "Long Dark Night" and "I Can't Take It No More," both from his acclaimed 2007 album, the GRAMMY nominated Revival. The GRAMMY-winning rocker then brought his set full circle with "Fortunate Son," the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival hit lamenting the inequities between middle class kids sent to war and their wealthy, pampered counterparts.
Extending the evening's theme of sociopolitical action through music, GRAMMY nominee Ryan Shaw offered up a bravura version of Sam Cooke's immortal 1965 protest ballad, "A Change Is Gonna Come." Performing the song's opening verses a capella, Shaw's spiraling vocals underscored the yearning for freedom evident in Cooke's lyrics.
Backed by the Christ Memorial Church Choir, fellow GRAMMY nominee Chrisette Michele offered up a medley of the black spirituals "We Shall Overcome" and "Freedom," singing in a sweet but powerful voice reminiscent of the late jazz singers Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. As performed by GRAMMY nominee Musiq Soulchild, Bob Marley's reggae classic "Redemption Song" took on a soulful lilt, while Natasha Bedingfield's reading of John Lennon's "Imagine" ran the emotional gamut from wide-eyed sensitivity to prayerful urgency.
Representing the hip-hop/mixer community, DJ Hapa treated the audience to a mash-up of classic protest tunes including Edwin Starr's "War," Bob Marley And The Wailers' "Get Up, Stand Up" and Public Enemy's "Fight The Power." Bedingfield, Michele, Musiq Soulchild and Shaw concluded the evening with a rousing, improvisational take on Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."
Wednesday's live performances were interspersed by film shorts produced by the GRAMMY Foundation. The resulting clips combined footage from key movements in history with filmed commentaries culled from The Recording Academy's own Living Histories interview archives, including insights from the late Coretta Scott King, folk legend Pete Seeger, producer Peter Asher, soul pioneer Rufus Thomas, and others.
Backstage, Fogerty explained how he grew up listening to protest singers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. "Music with a conscious is an important part of songwriting," Fogerty said. "Every now and then, when there's something that we should be addressing, if a great song comes along about it, it can move an awful lot of people."
The GRAMMY Foundation's Music Preservation Project is one of the organization's most high-profile events. Protecting the world's cultural legacy for future generations is a cornerstone of the GRAMMY Foundation mission, and the Music Preservation Project furthers that mission through year-round activities like preservation grants and the Living Histories archive.