Amy Winehouse and Kanye West were big winners at the 50th annual Grammy awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles Sunday night, while jazz pianist Herbie Hancock pulled an upset, winning best album for his Joni Mitchell tribute, “River: The Joni Letters.”
“I’d like to thank the academy for courageously breaking the mold,” Hancock, 67, said, in accepting the first album of the year award for a jazz disc since “Getz/Gilberto,” featuring “The Girl From Ipanema,” was honored in 1965. “This is a new day that proves the impossible can be made possible. Yes we can, to coin a phrase,” he said - echoing the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Winehouse, the troubled British retro-soul singer, took home five trophies, including new artist and best song for her stubbornly defiant “Rehab.” West, the self-confident Chicago rapper, won four awards, including best rap album for “Graduation.”
In accepting that trophy, West - who had the word “Mama” stenciled into the back of his hair in honor of his mother, Donda, who died unexpectedly in December - said, “All I’m gonna do is keep making you proud. We own this!”
West chastened Grammy producers for starting the exit music before he finished his short speech, and cheekily said that Winehouse and her producer Mark Ronson deserved the album of the year honor “as much as I do. I deserve it too.”
Neither Winehouse’s nor West’s success was a surprise. West had topped the nomination list with eight, while Winehouse - who performed via satellite from London - rated second with six nominations.
Fully beehived, tattooed and mascaraed in a fluffy black minidress, Winehouse appeared nervous and unsteady, but downright healthy compared with the absolute wreck she presented on a recent videotape that seemed to show her smoking crack. She performed from London because she was initially denied a U.S. visa last week, then was granted one too late for travel.
She sang the spooky “You Know I’m No Good,” as well as “Rehab,” altering the lyrics to drop the name of her jailed husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, into both songs.
When she won record of the year for “Rehab,” she accepted hugs from her mother and members of the Dap Kings, the Brooklyn, N.Y., backup band she’s borrowed from American soul singer Sharon Jones. Winehouse, 24, thanked “Blake, incarcerated,” and dedicated the award to “London, `cause Camden Town is burning down!” a reference to the fires that ravaged Camden Market this weekend, damaging one of her favorite pubs, the Hawley Arms.
Three Grammys were awarded to Bruce Springsteen. Two each went to the Foo Fighters, the White Stripes, Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige and Hancock.
West, 30, provided the musical highlight of the early part of the show. He appeared in glow-in-the-dark glasses and jacket for “Stronger,” for which he had won a rap solo performance prize in the pre-telecast ceremony, and was joined by the French techno duo Daft Punk, in the first television appearance of their 14-year career.
West took off his shades for a heartfelt “Hey Mama,” his tribute to his mother, that left audience members like country star Carrie Underwood (who herself won two awards) with tears on their cheeks.
Ronson, who also worked with British singer Lily Allen, whose excellent “Alright, Still” was all but ignored by the Grammys, won as best producer, defeating Timbaland, among others. “I can remember 10 years ago hearing `One in a Million,’ and listening to it 18 times straight,” Ronson said, speaking of the 1996 hit Timbaland produced for Aaliyah. “I thought it was the best thing I ever heard, so it’s quite an honor.”
In its 50th year, the Recording Academy took time to honor its past. The show kicked off with a duet between Alicia Keys, looking like a Popsicle in a lime green dress, and a black-and-white video projection of Frank Sinatra, on “Learnin’ the Blues.”
“Frank Sinatra looked good for 150, didn’t he?” quipped Prince. (Actually, were he alive, Sinatra would be only 92).
Lifetime achievement awards were given to the Band (whose drummer, Levon Helm, won for his album “Dirt Farmer” in the traditional folk category), as well as Burt Bacharach, Cab Calloway, Doris Day, Itzhak Perlman, Max Roach and Earl Scruggs.
The young-and-old duet theme was kept up with the pairings of Rihanna and `80s funk group the Time, Beyonce and Tina Turner, and, most bizarrely, rap-rocker Kid Rock and jazz-pop singer Keely Smith.
Significant screen time was given to the Beatles, who won best compilation album for “Love,” the remastered mashup of their hits that is the soundtrack to the trippy Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show of the same name, which the troupe performed. The award was accepted by Ringo Starr and producer George Martin, who said of John, Paul, George and Ringo, “I guess we miss those guys a hell of a lot.”
Starr also presented Vince Gill with the country album gramophone, prompting Gill to quip, “I just got an award handed to me by a Beatle. Have you had that happen to you yet, Kanye? Just kidding.”
Musicians weren’t the only ones to win awards Sunday night. Obama won a spoken-word award for the audio book of “The Audacity of Hope: Reclaiming The American Dream,” beating former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Not that the Clinton family has anything to be envious about: Bill Clinton has won the same award twice before, and Hillary Clinton took it home in 1996 for “It Takes A Village.”