Recording technology has come a long way since the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences began doling out gilded gramophones to musicians in 1959. Popular music today is replete with layered tracks, auto-tuned vocals and electronically-generated sounds that can fill in for instruments played live. But several years before the first Grammys were awarded, the famed LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith took his camera into the studios where the most respected musicians of the day sought to achieve perfection through technologically simpler means.
When Smith photographed Frank Sinatra, Marian Anderson, Igor Stravinsky and Benny Goodman at the RCA and Columbia studios in 1951, he captured quiet moments of self-evaluation. Knowing that the public would judge their recordings for years to come, LIFE explained, “they listen with feelings of despair, approval or plain exhaustion to the playbacks of their own music.”
Smith’s portraits offer a rare look at the exacting artist in the most exacting moment—the one in which she decides to do one more take, with gusto, to inch that much closer to brilliance.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.