When the Recording Academy named Paul McCartney as its Person of the Year for tonight’s annual MusiCares dinner, it landed a man many consider one of the top composers of the 20th century, if not the man who most epitomizes the phrase “rock royalty.”

“Without question he is on the same plane as (George) Gershwin,” says Chris Sampson, associate dean of the U. of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. “He’s a prolific melodicist and is able to have that sort of magic combination of simplicity and memorability. He’s a remarkable tunesmith.”

Neil Portnow admits securing McCartney “has always been a dream for me,” both as the Recording Academy’s president/CEO and as a musician. “I’ve had a dialogue with Paul’s people for many years because I’m always interested in finding the moment when he might have the appetite to do something like this. … This is the year where that happened.”

In addition to talking to McCartney’s representative, Portnow had the opportunity to give “the cute Beatle” a little nudge when they were seated near each other at a dinner for the 2010 Kennedy Center honorees.

While Portnow is too politically savvy to say McCartney is the biggest name that MusiCares could ever hope to land, he allows that it would be difficult to find anyone more significant and more enduring than McCartney. “If one says, idiomatically, music can change the world, then certainly the contributions he made, in my mind, have enormous and almost incalculable impact,” says Portnow.

Once McCartney was announced as the honoree, tickets flew out the door. Although the final count won’t be available until after the dinner, Portnow says attendance will exceed the 2,500 who came to last year’s fete honoring Barbra Streisand, and will likely surpass that evening’s record haul of $4.75 million. Money raised goes toward funding services for members of the music community, including providing emergency financial and medical assistance.

Honorees decide how much they want to participate in selecting the talent and “in Paul’s case, he’s very actively involved,” Portnow says. “What you’ll ultimately see is a list of artists who reflect his thoughts, along with ours, of what the evening will be like.”

Among those paying tribute to McCartney are Foo Fighters, Coldplay, James Taylor, Norah Jones and 2010’s Person of the Year, Neil Young.

Jones tells Variety she particularly admires how McCartney’s songs are “always beautifully melodic and memorable in a very simple, straightforward way, while at the same time being quite complex in a way I never notice until I sit down to learn one of them.”

Not surprisingly, there’s been a surfeit of potential performers for the evening. “There’s an unbelievable outpouring from the creative community wanting to participate,” Portnow says. “Paul is a hero to most of the folks out there who make music.”

Portnow also hints that McCartney, who has already committed to performing at the dinner, will likely have “a greater level of involvement in the creative part of the evening” than past nominees. In an attempt to give the Los Angeles Convention Center’s West Hall some intimacy, plans also call for a satellite stage as well as video screens.

McCartney’s latest album, “Kisses on the Bottom,” was released Feb. 7 on Hear Music/Concord. The set is largely a collection of songs from the ’20s-’40s, plus two originals. Though McCartney will always be best remembered as a member of the Fab Four, Chris Carter, host of terrestrial and satellite radio show “Breakfast With the Beatles,” says McCartney remains a vital musical force who fearlessly continues to experiment.

“He has approached and tackled every style: rock and roll, pop, classical, Indian, reggae, edgy guitar-driven rock, ambient,” says Carter. “No one has really done what he has done.”

Prolificacy aside, McCartney’s greatest strength now is his ongoing contribution as a live musician.

“He’s put together his best rock ‘n’ roll band he’s ever had,” Carter says. “Who could touch that set list? It’s an amazing range of songs that you hear. He’s singing his heart out.”

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