A PEOPLE Editor Is Shut Out at the Grammys, Gaining a Reprieve from Celebrity

updated 03/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

In mid-February PEOPLE Associate Editor Frank Kappler was astonished to learn that he had been nominated for a Grammy. The honor, however, was not strictly musical. It was for writing the 52-page liner notes for a Time-Life Records 40-side tribute to 1920s jazz pianist James P. Johnson. Undeterred, Kappler leapt at the chance to report the story from the point of view of an insider. His look at the life of a Grammy nominee begins with his departure from New York's JFK Airport.

Stewardess smiles, offers me—only me—chewing gum. Does she know? Wife Gerry looks innocent, although she has told at least two total strangers, "We are going to the Grammy Awards—my husband has been nominated for writing a biography of James P. Johnson, the pioneer jazz pianist."

Both told me, "I know you will win." Silly. I will not win. Competition strong in Category 48 (Best Album Notes). How many members of National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences will read my 10,000-word biography and vote intelligently? I tell these optimists I am loose, explain that nine-time Oscar nominee Spencer Tracy said being nominated is what counts.

L.A. overcast, 58°F, pilot announces as JFK Airport drops away. It's 7 a.m. there. What time will Category 48 be decided? Who cares? Great spectacle. Audience in Shrine Auditorium said to sport some of weirdest attire ever under roof, although NARAS, trying to upgrade this, has requested black tie. Relax, just be spectator. Ironic if Fats Waller bio by Dave Thomson and Phil Payne should win—strong possibility because Fats was better known to general public than his teacher. But that's life. Stew is back. Why? She's looking at my hands. White knuckles.

Limo (courtesy of PEOPLE) before Corinthian-columned Biltmore Hotel entrance is one of biggest "stretches" in line. Bar stocked with champagne. I pop it open. Very good. Driver says, "Congratulations. You're going to win." I say no chance, quote Spencer Tracy. Tooling smoothly down Figueroa (the potholes unimpressive to New Yorker), he explains postceremony battle plan. "If you are winner," he says, "you may be delayed in interview room." Interview! Remote possibility, but must be considered. What do I tell media? Simple—tell truth, don't evade. Age first. Don't add on—Gerry gets mad. Not 68 till September. Admit Gerry is first and only wife, snatched from high school. Both sleep in same bed. Now, that is. Confess we have no serious arguments. Who'll believe? Better avoid PEOPLE reporters.

Drivers beside us at traffic lights gawk as, feet crossed Astaire-like on facing seat, I refill Gerry's glass. Terrible thought: need acceptance speech. Keep it short. "Yesterday, PEOPLE staffers reminded me to 'thank all the little people.' But, except for a couple of sharp editors, the only person I want to thank is a giant: James P. Johnson, the father of stride piano and composer of jazz and pop standards, musicals and symphonic suites, the most influential pianist in jazz history and the artist most undervalued by the general public. If you want to know why every ivory tickler who came after him is indebted to James P., read the book." Thirty seconds. Not bad.

Absurd—here I am rehearsing acceptance speech when odds are 4-1 against me. What's that cheering? Hey, it's for me! On sidewalks, kids, acting on Paparazzi Principle—longer the limo, bigger the celeb—are applauding as we edge past. Celebrity? Think of stories that have flowed through typewriter. Would winning give me big head? Should I go on lecture circuit? Accept cameo roles on soaps? Income tax bracket creep inevitable, passes by starlets ditto. Threat to marriage?

Crowd outside auditorium already sizable half hour before show's non-telecast portion begins. As Gerry and I disembark, applause is interspersed with cries of "Love ya!," "Yay, baby!" and "Who are you?" Inside, we are given 24th Annual Grammy Awards souvenir books and ushered to seats just off left-of-center aisle. Convenient for leaping to stage for acceptance speech. At 4:30 p.m. on nose, orchestra strikes up. NARAS' L.A. chapter president, Michael Melvoin, correctly points out that being nominated is the genuine honor(he doesn't mention Spencer Tracy). Speed is of the essence: After 43 awards, we go live at 6 p.m. for the 18 top categories. Surprised to feel lepidoptera flutter beneath the second stud of my tux.

Just minutes into the show presenter Gary Owens announces, "They tell me we're running long, folks, so let's keep the acceptance speeches short." Mentally I cut from my speech reference to editors (3 seconds), then last sentence (8 seconds), finally reference to Johnson the composer (5 seconds). Beyond that I will not go. They can't do this, dammit, to James P. Johnson. The nominee to my right, a knowledgeable chap who says he voted for me, slumps as he hears he's lost. Shame. Tears in his wife's eyes. Also in Mrs. K's. Now it's our turn. I'll feel awkward pushing across in front of my freshly crushed colleague. "The winner is...Dan Morgenstern, for Erroll Garner: Master of the Keyboard." I applaud louder than anybody else. Gerry claps hard enough to appear cordial, while muttering furious comments.

Outside, after a four-hour show, disaster area. Staring out over limitless sea of limo roofs are faces familiar from album jackets. Sea dotted with faces of chauffeurs staring back. Cries from LP faces: "Larry?" "Geraldo?" "Insane!" "Murder, man!" Dapper chap who looks like Lou Rawls (but isn't) tells companion, "Wait here. I'm gonna go out there," and wades offshore. One person is recognized by chauffeur: losing nominee for Best Album Notes. "How many green dresses with blond fur neckpieces are around?" says clever driver, beckoning to Gerry. Limo moored only three blocks away. Back to parties at Biltmore. Says one tablemate, snapping fingers to Harry James playing One O'Clock Jump, "Liner notes, eh? Sorry you lost." "Don't be," I tell her. "You know, Spencer Tracy always said..." I flip through glossy Grammy program to point out name. Boing-g-g! Typo! One name is missing. Guess whose.

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