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What's better than a Grammy? Immortality

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
February 10, 2013 -- Updated 1757 GMT (0157 HKT)
Rock 'n' roll legend Little Richard appears in costume at an empty Wembley Stadium in London during rehearsals for a concert in 1972. Little Richard (real name Richard Penniman) had his big hits, such as "Good Golly, Miss Molly," before the Grammy Awards were created in 1959. He was awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1993. Rock 'n' roll legend Little Richard appears in costume at an empty Wembley Stadium in London during rehearsals for a concert in 1972. Little Richard (real name Richard Penniman) had his big hits, such as "Good Golly, Miss Molly," before the Grammy Awards were created in 1959. He was awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1993.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: Grammy nominated acts should remember the real prize comes later in life
  • He says at a hotel he ran into a group of singing stars from an earlier era, in town for a show
  • He says the world of post-fame touring less glamorous for acts, but meaningful
  • Greene: Acts grow old, but their hits never will and to fans, the songs are time-machine

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams"; "Late Edition: A Love Story"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Memo to Carly Rae Jepsen, Frank Ocean, Hunter Hayes, Mumford & Sons, Miguel, the Alabama Shakes and all the other young singers and bands who are nominated for Sunday night's Grammy Awards:

Your real prize -- the most valuable and sustaining award of all -- may not become evident to you until 30 or so years have passed.

You will be much older.

But -- if you are lucky -- you will still get to be out on the road making music.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Many of Sunday's Grammy nominees are enjoying the first wave of big success. It is understandable if they take for granted the packed concert venues and eye-popping paychecks.

Those may go away -- the newness of fame, the sold-out houses, the big money.

But the joy of being allowed to do what they do will go on.

I've been doing some work while staying at a small hotel off a highway in southwestern Florida. One winter day I was reading out on the pool deck, and there were some other people sitting around talking.

They weren't young, by anyone's definition. They did not seem like conventional businessmen or businesswomen on the road, or like retirees. There was a sense of nascent energy and contented anticipation in their bearing, of something good waiting for them straight ahead. A look completely devoid of grimness or fretfulness, an afternoon look that said the best part of the day was still to come.

I would almost have bet what line of work they were in. I'd seen that look before, many times.

I could hear them talking.

Yep.

The Tokens ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight," a No. 1 hit in 1961).

Alison Krauss: Sing what's true

Little Peggy March ("I Will Follow Him," a No. 1 hit in 1963).

Little Anthony and the Imperials ("Tears on My Pillow," a top 10 hit in 1958).

Major singing stars from an earlier era of popular music, in town for a multi-act show that evening.

It is the one sales job worth yearning for -- carrying that battered sample case of memorable music around the country, to unpack in front of a different appreciative audience every night.

It's quite a world. I was fortunate enough to learn its ins and outs during the 15 deliriously unlikely years I spent touring the United States singing backup with Jan and Dean ("Surf City," a No. 1 hit in 1963) and all the other great performers with whom we shared stages and dressing rooms and backstage buffets:

Chuck Berry, Martha and the Vandellas, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, James Brown, Lesley Gore, Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon, the Kingsmen, the Drifters, Fabian, the Coasters, Little Eva, the Ventures, Sam the Sham. ...

Jukebox names whose fame was once as fresh and electric as that now being savored by Sunday's young Grammy nominees.

Decades after that fame is new, the road may not be quite as glamorous, the crowds may not be quite as large. The hours of killing time before riding over to the hall, the putrid vending-machine meals on the run, the way-too-early-in-the-morning vans to the airport -- the dreary parts all become more than worth it when, for an hour or so, the singers can once again personally deliver a bit of happiness to the audiences who still adore their music.

Greene: Super Bowl ad revives iconic voice

As the years go by, the whole thing may grow complicated -- band members come and go, they fight and feud, some quit, some die. There are times when it seems you can't tell the players without a scorecard -- the Tokens at the highway hotel were, technically and contractually, Jay Siegel's Tokens (you don't want to know the details). One of their singers (not Jay Siegel -- Jay Traynor) was once Jay of Jay and the Americans, a group that itself is still out on the road in a different configuration with a different Jay (you don't want to know).

But overriding all of this is a splendid truism:

Sometimes, if you have one big hit, it can take care of you for the rest of your life. It can be your life.

Sunday's young Grammy nominees may not imagine, 30 years down the line, still being on tour. But they -- the fortunate ones -- will come to learn something:

They will grow old, but their hits never will -- once people first fall in love with those songs, the songs will mean something powerful and evocative to them for the rest of their lives.

And as long as there are fairground grandstands on summer nights, as long as there are small-town ballparks with stages where the pitcher's mound should be, the singers will get to keep delivering the goods.

That is the hopeful news waiting, off in the distance, for those who will win Grammys Sunday, and for those who won't be chosen.

On the morning after that pool-deck encounter in Florida I headed out for a walk, and in the parking lot of the hotel I saw one of the Tokens loading his stage clothes into his car.

His license plate read:

SHE CRYD

I said to him:

"You sing lead on 'She Cried,' right?"

"Every night," he said, and drove off toward the next show.

The next show.

That's the prize.

That's the trophy, right there.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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