By JAKE COYLE
With an opening prayer and a moving tribute from Jennifer Hudson, the Grammy Awards played the part of impromptu memorial for Whitney Houston just a day after the six-time Grammy winner was found dead in the bathtub of her Beverly Hills hotel room.
“We’ve had a death in our family,” said host LL Cool J shortly after Bruce Springsteen opened the show by singing, with obvious poignancy, his new single, “We Take Care of Our Own.”
Cool J led the crowd in a prayer for music’s “fallen sister,” as the Staples Center crowd bowed their heads. He declared the night one to “celebrate and remember,” and played a clip of Houston performing “I Will Always Love You” from the 1994 Grammys.
Much later in the show, following the “in memoriam” segment, Hudson, the actress and former “American Idol” finalist, performed a tribute to the 48-year-old Houston by singing her hit ballad “I Will Always Love You.” It was a tender, simple performance that encapsulated the glamour and vocal power Houston embodied.
She sang the last words of the song as: “Whitney, we love you.”
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Bathed in a solemn spotlight, Hudson performed in a sleek black gown, accompanied only by piano. She received a standing ovation while portraits of music luminaries who died in the past year were lit above her.
That Houston’s death came so soon before the CBS broadcast meant “a full-blown tribute” wasn’t possible, said Grammy show producer Ken Ehrlich. He turned to Hudson on Saturday evening to hurriedly assemble a performance that Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, said was pulled together in hours of frantic phone calls.
“Musicians, by nature, improvise,” said Portnow on the red carpet before the show.
There were numerous nods to Houston throughout the night, including comments from Stevie Wonder (“I just want to say to Whitney up in heaven, we all love you, Whitney Houston”) and Rihanna (“Make some noise for Whitney!”).
But the Grammys didn’t just honor Houston. It also took time to pay tribute to soul and blues icon Etta James, rap godfather Gil Scott-Heron and “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius.
But as attendees arrived at the Grammys, Houston was on everyone’s mind. She had been expected to perform at the pre-awards gala Saturday night thrown by music impresario Clive Davis.
“Whenever there’s tragedy, family pulls together – and this is my family,” said producer Jimmy Jam. “There’s going to a little bit of everything tonight, and that’s how the emotions should be.”
“I’m glad we’re all together to grieve together,” said singer Bonnie Raitt.
For those who were particularly close to Houston, the evening was a difficult one. Just days before, on Thursday, R&B singer Kelly Price performed a duet of “Yes, Jesus Loves Me” with Houston at a pre-Grammy celebration – Houston’s last performance.
“I’m here,” said an emotional Price, a friend and a frequent collaborator with Houston. “She gave the genre of R&B music a gift that can never be denied.”
Heartfelt reaction swept across genres.
“Few people will ever touch the world as much as Whitney Houston,” said country star Billy Ray Cyrus.
Musicians who grew up in the 1980s recognized the loss a soundtrack to their youth. R&B singer Ledisi burst into a warm, impromptu rendition of Houston’s “How Will I Know” on the red carpet.
The Grammys were far from alone in honoring Houston. Reaction continued to pour in on social media. BET, MTV and VH1 ran tributes to the singer Sunday. Oprah Winfrey said she would remember Houston in a two-hour tribute Thursday on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
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