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New Grammy museum named for the show's pioneer, Canadian producer Pierre Cossette

The story of the Grammy Awards is forever intertwined with the story of Canadian Pierre Cossette.

The story of the Grammy Awards is forever intertwined with the story of Canadian Pierre Cossette.

Decades ago, he was just an audacious entrepreneur who snagged the production rights to a fledgling award show. He had the ambitious idea to turn what was a struggling, stuffy product into a grand, dynamic showcase of music's best performers. He persisted through the rejections of all the major networks before converting a show that had been an abject failure into an industry institution.

So when it came time to build the new Grammy museum, which opened in December, the name was an easy choice: The Pierre Cossette Center.

For Cossette, now 85, the acknowledgment served as validation of his life's work.

"I was thrilled," he says. "I could only think back to when we first started it, in ballrooms and dance halls and hotel rooms, and (then it) finally growing up to this monster thing. And all the trials, tribulations of getting there. Booking the places then having to cancel because either the Academy or the record industry wouldn't support it. My part of it, proving them wrong, was exciting for me.

"I was crying like a baby when I saw that sign."

Inside, the elegant, innovative museum pays tribute to Cossette and many other Canadians who have helped shape the sound of popular music.

The centre is meant not just to showcase artifacts of Grammys past, but to celebrate music in general. Among the more interesting pieces of memorabilia: the frayed Elvis Presley family bible, a container of lip salve owned by Louis Armstrong and hand-written letters scrawled by Buddy Holly.

There are multiple interactive displays, including a video primer on production techniques that lets guests remix Beck's "Gamma Ray" or try to sing their own vocal tracks for a Human League song, then tweak them in post-production.

And Canadians are everywhere. There's an exclusive video interview with Joni Mitchell that delves deep into her approach to songwriting, there are displays honouring Celine Dion and the Band and an intimate recording with Nelly Furtado that affords guests a peek at her creative process.

Of course, that's just the way Cossette wanted it.

Though he says he didn't have input into the content of the museum - aside from one corner that celebrates his life and contribution to the show - the Valleyfield, Que., native has always been a tireless supporter of music from his home country.

"He wears his neutral hat very well, because the Grammys ... is a sacrosanct process," said Alfred Haber, who has overseen international distribution of the awards show for the last 29 years.

"We all know where his roots are, though. Obviously, Pierre's not involved in the selection process, but his interest in music will always go back to where he came from.

"I can still see the look on his face here when he sees up and coming Canadian artists."

On Thursday, Cossette attended a party celebrating the Canadians nominated at the 51st Grammy Awards, which will be held Sunday (Global, 8 p.m. ET). He delighted in watching a showcase of young Canadian talent that included Halifax singer/songwriter Jenn Grant, rapper Shad, who hails from London, Ont., and Montreal indie rockers Plants and Animals.

"I could see his foot going up and down with the beat," Haber said. "I leaned in and said: 'Pierre, should we sign them?' And he said, 'Yeah.' He didn't even blink.

"I don't know if I took him to the House of Blues downtown (to listen to an American group) that he'd say yeah so quickly."

Speaking to Cossette, his immense pride in Canadian music is obvious.

"There are more big music stars coming out of Canada than coming out of any other nation in the world," he said. "Europe, Asia, Australia, wherever you want to look. And I'm a Canadian. So I've always said: 'Hey man, we're going to kick some ass."'

It was that same brash attitude that led him to revolutionize the Grammy Awards so many years ago.

Back in 1971, the production rights to the young award show became available. At that point, it was an hour-long compilation of recorded performances, and not a commercial success.

Cossette already had a successful career in the music business. He started out shortly after university, producing variety shows for clubs and hotels in the Las Vegas area - he's credited with pioneering the Las Vegas lounge act format. He moved on to managing artists and helped found Dunhill Records, where the roster included the Mamas and the Papas, Steppenwolf, Johnny Rivers and Three Dog Night.

He developed TV shows such as "Stand Up and Cheer," one of the first celebrity-driven programs, and "The Andy Williams Show."

But after he scooped up the production rights to the Grammy Awards, he had no end of trouble trying to sell networks on his vision for the show. Executives were skeptical that anyone would want to watch a performance-based show.

Of course, the man nicknamed "Showbiz" persevered. And without him, the Grammys might not exist today.

"He's the guy, he's the father, he's the one who put it together and made it what it is," said Ken Luftig Viste, chief curator at the Grammy Museum.

Cossette built the show and maintained it, producing the Grammys up until 2005. Now that Cossette can look back on his career, the scope of his Grammy journey isn't lost on him.

"Starting with an idea you couldn't sell to anybody," he recalls. "Failure, failure, failure. And then success, success, success. Just climbing that mountain.

"Put yourself in my shoes. How would you feel?"

 
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