There was a mix of the celebratory and the somber at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, a day after the world learned that music legend Whitney Houston had died.
The ceremony was supposed to mark the triumphant return of retro-diva Adele, who was performing for the first time after career-threatening vocal-cord surgery, and R&B singer Chris Brown, who experienced a career-threatening moment of his own after assaulting his then-girlfriend Rihanna hours before both were scheduled to perform at the Grammys in 2009. Instead the show featured touching tributes to Houston, a six-time winner who graced the Grammy stage as a performer many times over the years.
After the opening performance by Bruce Springsteen, host LL Cool J got straight to what was on everyone’s mind: “There is no way around it. We’ve had a death in our family. So at least for me, for me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for a woman who we loved, for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston.” After the rapper finished reading the prayer, a clip was shown of Houston performing “I Will Always Love You” at the 1994 Grammys.
More than two-and-a-half hours into the show, after the “In Memoriam” segment honored lost legends such as Nick Ashford, Amy Winehouse and Heavy D, Jennifer Hudson performed a showstopping rendition of the hit, which was written and originally recorded by Dolly Parton. There likely wasn’t a dry eye in the house after Hudson’s soul-stirring performance, which was no surprise, given reports that Hudson herself had difficulty making it through the rehearsal earlier in the day.
Throughout the night, several artists took the opportunity to honor Houston. Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt — already scheduled to do a tribute to music icon Etta James, who passed away last month — took a moment to acknowledge Houston before performing one of James’ songs, “A Sunday Kind of Love.”
The night’s second performer, Bruno Mars, got the audience to its feet by announcing, “Tonight we celebrate the beautiful Ms. Houston, so get off your rich asses and let’s have some fun,” during a James Brown-inspired performance of his hit “Runaway Baby.”
Before the ceremony, an emotional Kelly Price talked to Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet about her pre-Grammy party Thursday night, where Houston sang a few verses of “Yes, Jesus Loves Me” in what is being called her last performance.
“I wasn’t expecting her to sing, I wasn’t going to ask her to do that … and she just walked up on the stage. We embraced each other and she said, ‘Give me the mic,’ ” a visibly shaken Price told Seacrest as she clasped his hand. Even though a pall hung over the ceremony, Price said Houston would want the show to go on. “She would want it to be celebratory and be about the music. She loved what she did.”