The Grammy Awards must have had no idea how lucky they were to choose LL Cool J as their host: The rapper-actor struck exactly the right tone as he honored Whitney Houston without letting her death completely overshadow the ceremony.
Adele dominated Sunday, winning Record of the Year for "Rolling in the Deep" and Album of the Year for "21." Before Houston's death, the biggest question of the night was how she would sound after her vocal chord surgery. She put any worries to rest by giving by far the best performance of the night — as she tends to do. Later, Jennifer Hudson delivered another highlight with a performance of "I Will Always Love You" — a Dolly Parton song that became Houston's signature hit.
The three-and-a-half hour ceremony turned the focus repeatedly to a few Grammy favorites — especially Adele, Paul McCartney, and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl.
The ceremony began with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing the new single "We Take Care of Our Own" — as had been planned before Houston's shocking death. Then Cool J took the stage and immediately addressed the elephant in the Staples Center.
"There is no way around this. We've had a death in our family," he said. "And so at least for me, for me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for a woman we loved — for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston."
He then began what seemed like an award show first — a prayer. Stars from Katy Perry to Blake Shelton bowed their heads as he thanked God "for sharing Whitney with us."
Atheists may not have been happy. But the moment felt right.
And then Cool J — one of the many rappers who Grammy voters saw not-quite three decades ago as a new and confusing force in music — subtly lightened the mood. After playing one of Houston's memorable Grammy performances, he promised new ones. He said one would come from "Sir O.G. [Original Gangster] Paul McCartney, my homie."
("O.G. Original Gangster" is an Ice-T song from around his "Cop Killer" days. McCartney is one of the most universally beloved figures in music. Rarely have hard-core hip-hop and popular culture blended together so seamlessly.)
McCartney, it turned out, provided two big perfomances: He played once early in the show show, then ended the long night with the medley that closes the Beatles' "Abbey Road." He was joined by Springsteen and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, among others.
Cool J's hosting at first seemed a marriage of convenience — he stars on "NCIS: LA," which airs on CBS, which also aired the Grammys. But his ability to honor Houston while tactfully keeping the ceremony moving proved a huge asset.
There was no forgetting Houston's death — and no one wanted to. The intro to a long-planned planned tribute to Etta James by Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys was quickly rewritten to honor Houston as well.
But the show soon settled into a familiar rhythym. The Foo Fighters — the band that has agreed to gamely fill many a boring ceremony's "indie and edgy" quota — continued to push the envelope without pushing the envelope at all by performing outside. Grohl wore a Slayer shirt. It was fine.
Moments later, the band won the Best Rock Performance award for "Walk," one of several wins. Grohl noted that the band's latest album was recorded in his garage and said, "It's not about what goes on in a computer. It's about what goes on in here [pointing to his heart] and it's about what goes on in here [pointing to his heart]." Then an LMFAO song played.
And then Ryan Seacrest took the stage to introduce a Beach Boys tribute and performance. If not for Houston's death, the Beach Boys reunion might have been the biggest moment of the night. Long overshadowed by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, the band has become a major influence on such acclaimed and experimental bands as Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective.
Chart-topping bands Maroon 5 and Foster the People turned in credible covers of Beach Boys songs before the group — finally featuring Brian Wilson after decades of division — performed a medley of their harmony-filled hits.
Later, Glen Campbell brought McCartney and other stars to their feet as he sang "Rhinestone Cowboy" wearing a jacket bedecked in — what else? — rhinestones. The singer, who is battling Alzheimers, received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Potentially incendiary moments passed uneventfully. Chris Brown and Rihanna performed — separately — three years after Brown brutalized his then-girlfriend after a 2009 Grammy party hosted by Clive Davis. (Davis' party is becoming incredibly storied — after Houston's death Saturday, it became a tribute to her.) Rihanna called on the crowd to "make some noise" for Houston, then performed with Coldplay. That transitioned into the band doing its Radiohead-lite routine.
Brown went on to win the Best R&B Album award for "F.A.M.E."
Other memorable performances included one by Swift, who sang "Mean" against a rambling shack backdrop. She wore a long, simple dress and held a banjo she didn't seem to be actually playing.
Carrie Underwood dueted with Tony Bennett, who can do anything, and made it look easy, as usual.
The Lady Gaga effect was very apparent: Rapper Nicki Minaj had the most provocative arrival, wearing all red and holding the arm of an escort dressed as the Pope. Her performance included her levitating against a backdrop of stained glass windows as backup singers dressed as monks sang along. Perry delivered another ambitious performance that included a body double and lots of flames.
But Adele's straightforward performance of "Rolling in the Deep" won the night. The British singer suggested she had made a complete recovery from her surgery with a controlled but stirring performance, then won album, record, and song of the year.
Rarely have those awards felt so in the bag.
RECORD OF THE YEAR - "Rolling In The Deep" Adele
ALBUM OF THE YEAR - "21" Adele
SONG OF THE YEAR - "Rolling In The Deep" Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth (song writer award)
BEST NEW ARTIST - Bon Iver
BEST POP SOLO PERFORMANCE - Adele "Someone Like You"
BEST ROCK ALBUM - Foo Fighters "Wasting Light"
BEST POP DUO - Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse "Body and Soul"
BEST POP VOCAL ALBUM - Adele "21"
BEST RAP ALBUM - Kanye West "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"
BEST POP INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM - Booker T. Jones "The Road From Memphis"
BEST DANCE RECORDING - Skrillex "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites"
BEST DANCE/ELECTRONICA ALBUM - Skrillex "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites"
BEST TRADITIONAL POP VOCAL ALBUM - Tony Bennett & Various Artists "Duets II"
BEST ROCK PERFORMANCE - Foo Fighters "Walk"
BEST HARD ROCK/METAL PERFORMANCE - Foo Fighters "White Limo"
BEST ROCK SONG - Foo Fighters (songwriters) "Walk"
BEST ALTERNATIVE MUSIC ALBUM - Bon Iver "Bon Iver"
BEST R&B PERFORMANCE - Corinne Bailey Rae "Is This Love"
BEST TRADITIONAL R&B PERFORMANCE - Cee Lo Green & Melanie Fiona "Fool for You"
BEST R&B SONG - Cee Lo Green, Melanie Hallim, Jack Splash (songwriters) "Fool for You"
BEST R&B ALBUM - Chris Brown "F.A.M.E"
BEST RAP PERFORMANCE - Jay-Z & Kanye West "Otis"
BEST RAP/SUNG COLLABORATION - Kanye West, Rihanna, Kid Cudi & Fergie "All of the Lights"
BEST RAP SONG - Jeff Bhasker, Stacy Ferguson, Malik Jones, Warren Trotter & Kanye West (songwriters) "All of the Lights"
BEST COUNTRY SOLO PERFORMANCE - Taylor Swift "Mean"
BEST COUNTRY DUO/GROUP PERFORMANCE - The Civil Wars "Barton Hollow"
BEST COUNTRY SONG - Taylor Swift (songwriter) "Mean"
BEST COUNTRY ALBUM - Lady Antebellum "Own The Night"
BEST NEW AGE ALBUM - Pat Metheny "What's It All About"
BEST IMPROVISED JAZZ SOLO - Chick Corea "500 Miles High"
BEST JAZZ VOCAL ALBUM - Terri Lyne Carrington & Various Artists "The Mosaic Project"
BEST JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM - Corea, Clarke & White "Forever"
BEST LARGE JAZZ ENSEMBLE ALBUM - Christian McBride Big Band "The Good Feeling"
BEST GOSPEL/CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN MUSIC PERFORMANCE - Le'Andria Johnson "Jesus"
BEST GOSPEL SONG - Kirk Franklin (songwriter) "Hello Fear"
BEST CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN MUSIC SONG - Laura Story (songwriter) "Blessings"
BEST GOSPEL ALBUM - Kirk Franklin "Hello Fear"
BEST CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN MUSIC ALBUM - Chris Tomlin "And If Our God Is for Us..."
BEST LATIN POP, ROCK, OR URBAN ALBUM - Mana "Drama y Luz"
BEST REGIONAL MEXICAN OR TEJANO ALBUM - Pepe Aguilar "Bicentenario"
BEST BANDA OR NORTENO ALBUM - Los Tigres Del Norte "Los Tigres Del Norte and Friends"
BEST TROPICAL LATIN ALBUM - Cachao "The Last Mambo"
BEST AMERICANA ALBUM - Levon Helm "Ramble at the Ryman"
BEST BLUEGRASS ALBUM - Alison Krauss & Union Station "Paper Airplane"
BEST BLUES ALBUM - Tedeschi Trucks Band "Revelator"
BEST FOLK ALBUM - The Civil Wars "Barton Hollow"
BEST REGIONAL ROOTS MUSIC ALBUM - Rebirth Brass Band "Rebirth of New Orleans"
BEST REGGAE ALBUM - Stephen Marley "Revelation Pt. 1: The Root of Life"
BEST WORLD MUSIC ALBUM - Tinariwen "Tassili"
BEST CHILDREN'S ALBUM - Various Artists "All About Bullies ... Big and Small"
BEST SPOKEN WORD ALBUM - Betty White "If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won't)
BEST COMEDY ALBUM - Louis C.K. "Hilarious"
BEST MUSICAL THEATER ALBUM - "The Book of Mormon"
BEST SHORT FORM MUSIC VIDEO - Adele "Rolling in the Deep"
BEST LONG FORM MUSIC VIDEO - Foo Fighters "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth" (Reporting By Jill Serjeant and Sheri Linden; Editing by Eric Beech)