After an opening number by Bruce Springsteen, the 54th Grammy Awards addressed what was on every viewers mind: the death of Whitney Houston the day before.
“There is no way around this,” host LL Cool J said at the top of his monologue. “We’ve had a death in our family. At least for me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer…for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston.”
With that LL removed a piece of a paper from his jacket pocket and read a prayer thanking the “heavenly Father for sharing our sister Whitney with us.”
“Although she is gone too soon, we feel truly blessed by her beautiful spirit,” he said as the camera panned an audience of superstars, including Lady Gaga, with heads bowed.
Grammy producers had to scramble to address Houston’s death and assemble a tribute to the fallen star. Hours after her passing, executive producer Ken Ehrlich announced that Jennifer Hudson would perform a “respectful musical tribute,” along with Chaka Khan and possibly others.
In the end, Hudson took the darkened stage solo a few minutes before 11 p.m for a stirring tribute to Houston. Her voice, alone, rang out across the stage and for a moment the audience could be fooled into thinking it was Houston performing one of her biggest hits, “I Will Always Love You.”
Hudson, a huge admirer of Houston’s who said she was more blown away by receiving her first Grammy from Houston than the award itself, sang the first minute acapella, drawing applause from the audience.
Clearly holding back tears, she concluded the song with the words, “Whitney, we love — we love you,” and left the stage to rousing applause.
Less than an hour before the live show, Khan, who originally sang one of Houston’s biggest hits, “I’m Every Woman,” backed out.
“As I grieve the loss of my friend and ‘little sister,’ I don’t feel it appropriate to perform at this time,” the singer tweeted. “Continue to pray for the family”
While welcoming the audience to the annual Grammy Awards, LL also addressed the pall that had obviously been cast by Houston’s death Saturday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
“There are moments in the history of this show we will remember for the rest of our lives,” he said, introducing a clip of Houston singing “I Will Always Love You” at the Grammys in 1994.
As it no doubt did then, Houston’s performance brought the once subdued audience to their feet as LL declared, “Whitney we will always love you.”
Then, giving the audience permission to let loose at what is traditionally one of the more lighthearted awards shows, LL said, “the Grammy Awards was one of Whitney’s greatest joys … let us all celebrate with joy the 54th Grammy Awards,” adding that “the power of music is what brings us all here.”
The rap legend struck the right tone for the night, perfectly capturing the early mood of the evening before deftly segueing into a celebration of the music industry’s best.
Earlier on the red carpet, LL explained to a reporter from MTV the balance the Grammys had to strike between giving “Houston the love, the appreciation, the respect she deserves” and allowing the artists to “go out there and do what they do.”
Many did, while tipping their hats to Houston. During an energetic performance, James Brown heir Bruno Mars announced, “tonight we celebrate music, we celebrate Miss Whitney Houston,” before imploring the crowd to “get off your rich a**es.”
Rihanna also gave a shout out to Houston prior to her duet with Coldplay.
Alicia Keys and Bonnie Rait honored Houston, before launching into a tribute for Etta James, who died just last month at 73. “We love you, Etta! We love you, Whitney! We’ll never forget you,” they said at the end of the performance.
And Stevie Wonder said “to Whitney up in heaven, we all love you,” before introducing Paul McCartney.
One of the show’s most poignant moments was one TV viewers didn’t see. When Tony Bennett received the Grammy for best pop performance by a duo or group for his duet with Amy Winehouse, he invited the late singer’s parents to join him on stage during the awards pre-show segment.
“We shouldn’t be here. Our darling daughter should be here,” Winehouse’s father, Mitch, said. Then, noting Houston’s death Saturday and the recent passing of Etta James, he said, “What can I say? There’s a beautiful girl band up in heaven.”