The GRAMMY Awards rang in its 50th show with a wide-ranging, celebratory telecast that honored the old, the new and everything in between as The Recording Academy paid tribute to its legacy and its future as well as the current list of exciting honorees and performers.
British neo-soul singer Amy Winehouse won five awards, including Best New Artist as well as Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year for "Rehab," while rapper Kanye West took home four, including the Best Rap Album award for Graduation, though Album Of The Year eluded him for the third time. That award went to longtime jazz great Herbie Hancock for his tribute to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters. Other top winners included gospel star Karen Clark-Sheard of the Clark Sisters and Bruce Springsteen with three trophies each.
Through it all, the show successfully balanced the classic with the contemporary. Alicia Keys, who kicked off the night by "duetting" on "Learnin' The Blues" with a half-century old clip of Frank Sinatra (who remained commanding even on tape in black-and-white), stated The Academy's purpose at the beginning: "[Our] mission remains the same; we honor our past, we celebrate the present, and we look always toward the future."
Hancock would cap the night with similar sentiments in accepting his Album Of The Year trophy. "It's been 43 years since the first and only time that a jazz artist got the Album Of The Year award [Stan Getz and João Gilberto for Getz/Gilberto]. I'd like to thank The Academy for courageously breaking the mold this time and in doing so honor the giants upon whose shoulders I stand."
But arguably the talk of the night was a very in-the-moment live satellite performance by Winehouse, whose stormy and public personal life has sometimes overshadowed her rich talent. She received a visa to enter the United States too late to perform on the show in Los Angeles, and was beamed in from a London studio.
Winehouse rose above the stories and speculation with a confident performance. Dressed in a black party dress (accented by tattoos), Winehouse sang a torrential "You Know I'm No Good," and followed it up with the megahit "Rehab." She belied her recent troubles with prancing moves, knowing winks and emotive vocals. Perhaps never before has a singer's current circumstances so mirrored her music — one more element in the compelling nature of Winehouse's songs.
The moment was a highlight in a show packed with surprise performances from the start.
Joined by an incredible backing band that included Kodo-inspired drummers and chain-wearing dancers, Carrie Underwood sang her GRAMMY-winning hit, "Before He Cheats," with the ferocious delivery that has become her trademark.
Resurrecting a blast from the 1980's past, Prince protégés the Time, featuring current Academy Chair Jimmy Jam, hit the stage running with hip-hop diva Rihanna joining in the fun. The Time — with dapper lead singer Morris Day — blasted into their timeless funk workout "Jungle Love," the trio's first performance in 15 years. Rihanna then appeared singing her smash hit "Umbrella," taking command like a conquering diva. She capped her segment with "Don't Stop The Music" before the Time reprised "Jungle Love."
Surreal, dynamic and impressionistic, Cirque du Soleil launched a tribute to what Tom Hanks called "the power of the Beatles" with an interpretative performance of the Beatles' classic "A Day In The Life" taken from Cirque's Las Vegas show "Love." (That show's accompanying album would go on to win Best Compilation Soundtrack Album For Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media.) Equally stunning was a gospel-tinged "Let It Be," performed by youngster Timothy T. Mitchum and Carol Woods from the film Across The Universe.
Hip-hop graduate Kanye West and French techno twins Daft Punk offered an ominous slab of anthemic techno-hop with a rousing rendition of "Stronger." As flames blasted skyward like surreal geysers, West and the Punks clamored and paraded. While West retired backstage, Daft Punk scratched video screens — all the while providing a lesson in modern DJ production values. West then returned with a tear-jerking version of "Hey Mama" over soaring strings, singing with emotion and an obvious heavy heart to his mother, who died the previous year.
John Legend is known for his pure musical talent and with the Black Eyed Peas' Fergie, who sang with power and purpose, the pair gave extra dimension to her epic ballad, "Finally," standing center stage surrounded by a rapt audience.
After an introduction by a resplendent Cher (who claimed she first started singing when Lincoln was president), Beyoncé took control. Name-checking a litany of masterful female singers (Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan…), Beyoncé introduced the television return of Tina Turner. Looking like a million bucks, Turner launched into a never-been-gone version of "What's Love Got To Do With It." Soon, Beyoncé returned and the pair teamed for the classic "Proud Mary." From a slow grind groove to a double-barrel steamroller tempo (recalling Turner's days with the legendary Ike And Tina Turner Revue), Beyoncé and Turner commanded the audience; a pair of soul classics performing a soul classic.
Loud, proud and powerful, the Foo Fighters joined with a group of My GRAMMY Moment 2008 finalists — under the baton of Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones — for "The Pretender," played as an open-air concert outside Staples Center in Nokia Plaza. Dave Grohl rallied the troops, who quickly responded to his shouts (and drummer Taylor Hawkins' double-time fury) with hands in the air.
Super country guitar slinger Brad Paisley launched into "Ticks" like a good ol' boy possessed. Armed with patented white hat and custom Fender Telecaster, Paisley, backed by neon images of ixodes scapularis, made the case for country in presenting his modern hybrid of Hank Williams and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Introduced by Ludacris, who described the upcoming performance as "holy rolling [and] soul sanctifying," a special gospel performance included a cavalcade of spiritual power. Aretha Franklin and BeBe Winans got it started with "Never Gonna Break My Faith," bathed in the light of a glowing cross overhead. The million trombone band Madison Bumble Bees added their brass shouts to the proceedings on "You Brought The Sunshine," followed by the Clark Sisters and Trin-I-Tee 5:7, whose vocal harmonies recalled the glory days of Earth, Wind & Fire. Just when you thought the Holy Ghost had left the building, Israel & New Breed summoned the spiritual forces with the soaring "With Long Life." To bring it all back home, Franklin and the whole gospel cast united to sing "Old Landmark."
Best New Artist nominee Feist played a low-key version of her hit "1234" backed by a decidedly Beatles-esque horn section in undoubtedly the most subtle of the evening's performances.
Alicia Keys returned to the stage to perform her impassioned song "No One." She roamed the stage, lifting the audience higher as the song's intensity increased, then brought the energy to a boil by introducing John Mayer for a frenetic, melodic guitar solo.
Following Keys, accepting his award for Best Country Album (These Days) from Ringo Starr, the generally genteel Vince Gill got the night's biggest laugh this side of presenter George Lopez. "I just got an award given to me by a Beatle," Gill said with loving respect, then, barely missing a beat, looked at Kanye West in the front row: "Have you had that happen yet, Kanye?"
Pianists Lang Lang (a GRAMMY Salute To Classical Music honoree this year) and Herbie Hancock joined forces for George Gershwin's masterpiece "Rhapsody In Blue." Accompanied by a full orchestra, the pianists took turns stating the song's melodic themes with beguiling flair, setting the stage — literally and figuratively — for the fireworks that concluded the performance.
After an In Memoriam segment that paid honor to musicians lost in the past year, Andrea Bocelli appeared onstage. "I am here to honor the memory of one of the greatest artists of our time, Luciano Pavarotti," he said, and then with Josh Groban performed the Bocelli signature "The Prayer" for "all those who we have lost this year." As Bocelli sang with warmth, Groban followed with steely energy and immense power, lifting the dramatic song to equally dramatic heights.
To cap the raucous evening, John Fogerty, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard took the stage to form the latest rock supergroup. Creating an Icons of Rock segment, the three stormed through Fogerty's "Comin' Down The Road" (which is its own mini-tribute to classic rock), and the Lewis and Little Richard gems "Great Balls Of Fire" and "Good Golly Miss Molly." The trio's respective ages (Fogerty, 62, Lewis and Richard both 72) only made their continued passion for the music that much more astounding.
It was also an energetic send-off for a remarkable show that somehow fit the drama, tradition and music of 50 years worth of GRAMMYs into a single night. And gave immediacy to this year's GRAMMY catchphrase: The next 50 is here.