The Juno Awards: Revisiting 5 Classic Moments From the Last 50 Years
Gordon Downie of The Tragically Hip performs at the Air Canada Centre, one of the stops on the band's 2016 "Man Machine Poem" tour. The Tragically Hip will receive the 2021 Humanitarian Award at the 50th Juno Awards on Sunday. Photo: GP Images/WireImage
Every Golden Anniversary deserves some upgraded bling. For the 50th edition of the Juno Awards — which culminate with the awards ceremony on Sunday, June 6 — winners will receive new gold and silver human-shaped statuettes. It’s the sixth redesign since the inaugural Junos, when fans gathered at the St. Lawrence Hall in Toronto to see Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray and Stompin’ Tom Connors take home walnut trophies shaped like metronomes.
Last March, 72 hours before show time in Saskatoon, the 2020 Junos were cancelled when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. After a truncated virtual version unfolded in June, expectations are high for this year’s similarly virtual celebration (broadcast from multiple Canadian locales on television and digital platforms) of five decades of Canadian music — where 15-time Juno winners The Tragically Hip, including late lead singer Gord Downie, will receive the 2021 Humanitarian Award and Jann Arden, 59, will receive induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame by Canuck music legend Anne Murray, 75.
The first awards — then called RPM Gold Leaf Awards — were announced in 1964. The name change in 1971 honoured Pierre Juneau, the first chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, who implemented Canadian content rules for radio.
And the Junos have come a long way to live up to this year’s tagline All Our Sound, recognizing reggae and R&B-soul in 1985, rap in 1991, world music in 1992, francophone recordings in 1993 and Indigenous artists in 1994. The ceremony airs June 6 on CBC, which broadcast the first telecast in 1975.
5 Classic Junos Moments
In preparation of the 50th anniversary of the awards — which will feature performances by the likes of Arden, Justin Bieber, Jessie Reyez and more, we look back on five of the most memorable moments in Junos history:
k.d. lang Offers Her “Promise”
Before becoming a music superstar, k.d. lang — who was 23 at the time — danced onto the stage at the 1985 Juno Awards to accept her award for “Most Promising Female Vocalist” … in a wedding dress. In her speech, lang went on to “promise” that “I am sincerely honoured for your acknowledgement of my determination” and that “I’ll continue to sing for only the right reasons.”
“I feel proud. I had so much energy and so much creativity that I just went for the things that I thought of,” she told CBC recently, when recounting that moment. “I think for the most part I’ve kept my motivation pure, so I’m pretty happy about that.”
Of course, lang, who’s won eight Juno Awards to date, went on to create another memorable Juno moment exactly 20 years later when, in 2005, she stood barefoot on the stage and performed a timeless rendition of the classic “Hallelujah,” by fellow Canadian music legend Leonard Cohen.
Bryan Adams and Tina Turner Team Up
In 1985, a year after releasing her groundbreaking solo album Private Dancer, Tina Turner, then-45, took the Junos stage with Canadian rocker Bryan Adams, 25, to perform a duet of their tune “It’s Only Love” from Adams’ classic 1984 disc Reckless.
The pair tore up the stage in one of the most legendary Junos performances ever. And in 2019, when asked by Zoomer about his collaboration with Turner on the tune, Adams recalled meeting her for the first time in the early 1980s and noted that she “was spectacularly Tina.” He added that, “There were a few female voices I loved growing up, but Janis Joplin and Tina were my main ones. Then there were Carole King and Joni Mitchell, who took me to another place. I loved Tina’s voice because, like Janis, she seemed completely unbridled.”
Adams went on to win Male Vocalist of the Year, Composer of the Year (with Jim Vallance) and Album of the Year for Reckless that night.
Bob Dylan Inducts Gordon Lightfoot
Gordon Lightfoot received induction into The Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the 1986 Juno Awards and was inducted by another legendary singer-songwriter: Bob Dylan. Wearing a sequinned blazer, black leather gloves and an earring, Dylan, then-45, gave a short speech to introduce Lightfoot.
“I’ve known Gordon for a long time and I know he’s been offered this award before but he has never accepted it because he wanted me to come and give it to him,” he began, getting a laugh from the crowd before calling Lightfoot a “rare talent.”
Lightfoot, 47 at the time, took the stage and offered thanks for the award. “It’s been a great 25 years and I’m very much in commission. I feel good, I feel happy, and I’m ready to continue on for an indefinite period of time.”
And true to his word, Lightfoot, now 82, is still going strong.
Let Your Backbone Slide Into the History Books
In 1991, Toronto-born rapper Maestro Fresh Wes, or Maestro, then-23, made Junos history when he became the first artist to win the Juno for Best Rap Recording. It was the award’s inaugural year and the rapper won for his smash hit debut album Symphony in Effect, which included the country’s first-ever homegrown hip hop hit, “Let Your Backbone Slide.”
“I was representing black music in Canada. I knew it was bigger than hip hop,” Maestro, now 53, told CBC when reflecting on the award in the video below.
Gord Says “Thank You”
The 2017 Junos took place just months before Gord Downie passed away from brain cancer. At the ceremony, the 53-year-old won multiple awards for his Secret Path album — which raised awareness of the horrors of the residential school system in Canada — including Adult Alternative Album of the Year, Record Package of the Year and Songwriter of the Year. His band, The Tragically Hip, won Group of the Year and Rock Album of the Year for Man Machine Poem, the last album they recorded with Downie.
In an emotional and touching moment, Downie appeared via video to accept his award for Songwriter of the Year, thanking fans, collaborators and fellow Canadians, but also noting that, “We’re not completely Canada yet. We have friends, countrymen and women who are in big trouble. Our friends who were here before us, for thousands of years, First Nations, have many, many stories like this.”
He added, “Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you tonight … This award is to all of us bent on love and trying. Thank you from me, Wicapi Omani, the man who walks among the stars.”
— With files from Mike Crisolago
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2021 issue with the headline “The Junos at 50,” p. 16