One Grammy Award You Won't See On TV

Originally published on February 12, 2012 1:16 pm

The 54th Grammy Awards will be handed out Sunday — not all of them during the evening telecast. The winners of the lower-profile categories are announced earlier in the day, and Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin spoke to Ken Shipley, who's nominated for two of those: Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes.

The album that got him into consideration, where he's up against the likes of Neil Diamond and Paul McCartney, is Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology. It's a compilation of the veteran Chicago soul singer's music. Shipley is one of the founders of the record label Numero Group, which finds and preserves obscure musical recordings.

"Syl Johnson is one of those guys who fell through the cracks of — not only the Chicago soul scene — but the national soul scene as well," Shipley says. "He lived his entire career in the shadows of two of soul music's largest names." He's talking about James Brown and Al Green.

Shipley says Johnson's output was almost overwhelming, but he and his fellow producers didn't want to just do a deluxe reissue of one album.

"Once we wrapped our brains around how massive the scope of the project was gonna be, it became really easy to see that it was necessary to do," he says.

What they did was collect 81 tracks, and release them with a 52-page booklet of liner notes and photos.

"I think there's a service there, because there's a historical kind of scholarship happening," Shipley says. "Nobody else is doing this work. And if in 20 or 30 years, someone wants to look back on the career of Syl Johnson, I'd like to think that they'd come to our box set first and say, 'Well, this is the place we start.'"

"I feel like this is the best work I've done in my career," he says.

Shipley calls the set a "five-year labor of love." Though he's been nominated for a Grammy before, he says it would be special to win one for this project — not least because Syl Johnson himself will be in the audience.

"This is as close as he's probably ever going to get to any kind of lifetime achievement award and national recognition. And he deserves to be recognized."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Grammy Awards will be handed out this evening for achievement in recorded music. The death of singer Whitney Houston yesterday will certainly cast a pall over the event. Jennifer Hudson will reportedly perform a tribute at this evening's honors. And among the major awards, like Best Recording Artist and Album of the Year, are some lesser known categories, like Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes. These are the writings that come inserted in the packaging for CDs or vinyl records.

Ken Shipley happens to be a nominee in both of those categories for the album that he produced. It's called "Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology" and it's a compilation of the veteran Chicago soul singer's music. Shipley is one of the founders of the record label, Numero Group, which finds and preserves obscure musical recordings. Ken Shipley joins us from NPR West. Welcome to the program, Ken.

KEN SHIPLEY: Thank you for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: OK. So, I want to start out by talking about this artist, Syl Johnson. Who is he and why did you decide that this is the person that you were going to focus so much of your work on?

SHIPLEY: Syl Johnson is just one of those guys who fell through the cracks of not only the Chicago soul scene, but the national soul scene as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SHIPLEY: He lived his entire career in the shadows of two of soul music's largest names. The first side was James Brown, and then after doing some solo work, it was in the shadow of Al Green. And he had so much material. I mean, just his seminal 1969 record, "Is It Because I'm Black," was worthy of doing some kind of deluxe reissue of. But it had already been out on CD a handful of times, so it just expanded. And then it was, well, why don't we do everything he recorded up 'til 1972. And once we wrapped our brains around how massive the scope of the project was going to be, became really easy to see that it was necessary to do.

MARTIN: So, you've been nominated in two categories for Best Historical Album and for Best Album Notes. Best Album Notes, does anyone - I don't mean this to be flip - but in the age of digital music, do people really read liner notes anymore?

SHIPLEY: You know, we have a lot of arguments about this in our office. We spend so much time working on our liner notes and we sit down sometimes and say, well, God, why are we arguing over this? Nobody's, you know, 10 percent of the people are going to read this anyway so. But I think there's a service there because there's a historical kind of scholarship happening that nobody else is doing this work. And if in 20 or 30 years someone wants to look back on the career of Syl Johnson, I'd like to think that they'd come to our box set first and say, well, this is the place we start.

MARTIN: Is there a particular song in this complication that spoke to you personally during all your research?

SHIPLEY: I mean, there's so many to name. But I guess "Is It Because I'm Black" is, you know, we dedicate an entire section just to that song. It's his kind of lasting au revoir and he wrote it after Dr. King was shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS IT BECAUSE I'M BLACK")

SHIPLEY: It's just the song that kind of exemplifies who he is and who he could be and had the power to be.

MARTIN: You've been nominated for a Grammy before. How does this particular album, how does this particular work measure up to others that's you've done?

SHIPLEY: Well, I feel like this is the best work I've done in my career. The Syl Johnson box set was a five-year labor of love for both me and my partners over at Numero. And it would be really special to win for this one not only because Syl Johnson is going to be in the audience but because he's the kind of guy who deserves. This is as close as he's probably ever going to get to any kind of lifetime achievement award and national recognition and he deserves to be recognized.

MARTIN: Grammy nominee Ken Shipley speaking with us from NPR West. Thanks so much for talking with us.

SHIPLEY: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.