LOS ANGELES — Roughly a quarter-century ago, Whitney Houston’s peers crowned her pop’s new princess when they awarded her the Grammy for best female pop vocal performance.
At Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, many of the same people came together to mourn her untimely death.
Barely 24 hours after Houston died in her room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, as the music world’s glitterati massed at the Staples Center, it was evident that Houston’s spectral presence would hover fitfully over the evening. With little time to prepare, the Academy and the telecast’s producers faced the difficult task of paying tasteful tribute to Houston without draping its annual showcase in gloom.
“There is no way around this. We had a death in our family,” LL Cool J, the ceremony’s host, acknowledged in his opening monologue, before leading the attendees in a prayer for “our sister Whitney.”
“That said, welcome to the 54th Grammy Awards,” he continued, cuing a segue back to the evening’s previously scheduled business of high-decibel glamour.
Neil Portnow, the president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, said that he counted Houston among his personal friends, so altering the planned Grammy telecast was not the first thing on his mind Saturday when he learned of the pop icon’s death. Houston had been expected to sing at Saturday’s annual pre-Grammy party hosted by her lifelong mentor, the record producer and executive Clive Davis.
“I was at the Academy’s special merits awards, so it was already an emotional afternoon,” said Portnow. “Whitney was a friend — I worked with her when she was 17 — so I had to steel myself before falling into my role.
“I’m pretty much the head of the family and when disaster strikes you have to pull it together and make some decisions, creative decisions,” Portnow continued. “So we shifted the show, which was extremely difficult. But I had the A team and they’re nimble, and musicians by nature are able to improvise.”
Behind the telecast’s glitzy facade, Grammy producers scrambled to assemble a prime-time homage to the pop icon. Executive producer Ken Ehrlich and his team announced that Jennifer Hudson would perform a “respectful musical tribute” on the CBS broadcast. It was reported that Hudson would be joined by soul/funk diva Chaka Khan and possibly others.
But barely an hour before the live show was to begin, Khan decided to respectfully bow 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.”
Houston was mentioned sparingly throughout most of the rest of the telecast, including a nod from Stevie Wonder. But Jennifer Hudson toasted her with a stirring rendition of “I Will Always Love You” that concluded an audio-visual salute to artists who’d passed on in recent months.
Other artists remembered Houston both as an admired and beloved colleague and, for some, as a cautionary tale as well.
Songwriter Diane Warren, who worked on seven songs with Houston, voiced sadness as well as a touch of discomfort about certain public reactions to the singer’s death.
“I think people are all feeling really weird,” Warren said before the awards. “Even at Clive’s party last night, Alicia Keys was really good, but sorry, I didn’t want to see Pit Bull jumping around the stage.”
It was reported by several sources that the rapper Pit Bull used explicit language to encourage guests to “party” since Houston herself had “loved to party.”
Warren said she also felt a bit disconcerted by Tony Bennett’s remarks during his performance that drugs should be legalized, “like they did in Amsterdam,” in the wake of deaths including those of Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and now Houston.
“No, sorry. She got legal drugs from her doctor,” said Warren sadly. “So that was inappropriate.”
Steve Martin, a nominee for best bluegrass album with his Steep Canyon Rangers, called it “a sad day” as he arrived for the ceremony.
“I think I damaged my hearing from listening to her so loud and so long,” Martin said of Houston.
Ben Lovett and Ted Dwayne of the British folk rock band Mumford & Sons said they were on their way to Davis’ party when they heard the news about Houston. At first the duo were surprised the party hadn’t been canceled. But they said the event turned into a memorial tribute, with Davis speaking eloquently about how much Houston would have wanted the Grammys to go on as a celebration of the music and the artists she loved so much.
“It’s an undeniable tragedy, and it’s so soon after the event, there’s a lot of grieving yet to happen,” Lovett said.
(Times staff writers Jessica Gelt, Gerrick D. Kennedy and Randy Lewis contributed to this report.)