The 54th Grammy Awards will be remembered as a story of two women with towering, timeless voices — Adele and Whitney Houston — one representing youthful triumph and boundless possibility, the other a reminder of fresh tragedy and a life unraveled.
Adele, the 23-year-old British singer-songwriter, took home six awards including album, record and song of the year, a trophy bounty that puts a gold-plating on a commercial and critical success story that has dramatically defied the grim gravities of today's economically-challenged recording industry.
Adele's other victory came when she stepped to the microphone and sang a robust version of her hit "Rolling in the Deep," which suggests that she is past the career scare of throat surgery that came just after Halloween and kept her mute through New Year's Day. It was her first public performance since the operation.
Adele's honors for her sophomore album, "21," were juxtaposed against the dazed grief and still-raw reactions to the death of Houston on Saturday. The 48-year-old singer was found in a bathtub in her room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and, while the determination of cause of death could take weeks, Houston's history of drug addiction is a likely starting point for the investigation.
The Grammy broadcast on CBS began with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing its new hard-times anthem, "We Take Care of Our Own," and then host LL Cool J addressing the loss of Houston, a six-time Grammy winner who tumbled from the pinnacle of the pop charts into the pit of a tabloid life.
"We ask ourself," the rapper and actor said with the crisp tones of a Sunday sermon, "How do we speak to this time, to this day? There is no way around this. We've had a death in our family. At least to me, the only thing that seems right is to start with a prayer for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston." He then read a prayer while the audience went silent, many with bowed heads.
It was one of the many moments of emotion during the night. The big winners included the Foo Fighters with five awards and Kanye West with four, but it was the performances — not the envelopes — that opened up the true drama of the night.
Meanwhile the applause for Chris Brown's daring dance work (he performed on a hulking prop of giant cubes) may have echoed with a sense of redemption. Brown's future seemed uncertain at the Grammys in 2009 when he missed the show and was arrested on suspicion of felony assault on his girlfriend, Rihanna, but on Sunday he won best R&B album for "F.A.M.E."
"First and foremost, I gotta thank God, and thank the Grammys for letting me get on this stage and do my thing," Brown said. "All my fans, I love you. We got one. Thank you."
The best new artist award went to Bon Iver, the folk-pop project of mastermind Justin Vernon, who used his time on the Grammy stage to thank "all the non-nominees who never will be here." Although the likes of Kanye West have endorsed Bon Iver, the Midwestern act was competing against bigger names such as rapper Nicki Minaj and dance music sensation Skrillex.
"It's really hard to accept this award," Vernon said. "There's so much talent out there and on this stage. There's so much talent that's not here.... When I started making songs I started for the inherent reward of making songs."
Brian Wilson wasn't the only 1960s legend on stage — Paul McCartney performed twice on the show.
The 69-year-old McCartney performed a new song, "My Valentine," with an orchestra, Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh and jazz pianist Diana Krall. The song was written for Nancy Shevell, his new wife, and he also crooned it on their wedding day.
He was back on stage at the end of the show to perform the climatic "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End" medley from the "Abbey Road," the swan-song studio album by the Beatles. Springsteen, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Walsh joined in for the intense guitar volleys of "Carry That Weight" before the final line of "The End" brought the show to a close: "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."
That may have been the timeless music moment of the night, but the most timely was the performance of "I Will Always Love You," a tribute to Houston by Jennifer Hudson, one of the many young singers who saw in Houston a career and stylistic template.
The song was written and recorded by Dolly Parton in the 1970s but became a mega-selling signature hit for Houston with the release of "The Bodyguard" film and soundtrack.
On Sunday night, the soaring and epic song came at the end of the "In Memoriam" sequence as the photos of recently deceased music luminaries filled the screen behind Hudson. She blew a kiss at the end of the song, which was subdued but still packed with emotion — especially for the audience at the arena.
The funereal feel went further with a tribute by Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys to Etta James, who died last month. Also, in the pre-broadcast ceremony at which awards are handed out in dozens of Grammy categories, Tony Bennett brought the parents of the late Amy Winehouse to the stage to join him as he accepted the trophy for his collaboration with the singer who died last summer at age 27.
"We shouldn't be here," Mitch Winehouse told the audience. "Our darling daughter should be here."
Winehouse was one in a series of gifted female singer-songwriters who won over Grammy voters in recent years with blockbuster sales and a sense of music history. Norah Jones, Alicia Keyes and Lauryn Hill had historic nights running off with an armload of gramophone trophies — and Adele (born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins) of North London is now clearly on that list.
Adele's album "21" finished as the bestseller of 2011 with 5.82 million copies sold in North America. Her rousing hit "Rolling in the Deep" enjoyed the best year of sales of any song since "Candle in the Wind: Princess Diana Tribute," Elton John's charity single in 1997.
She became just the sixth performer in Grammy history to take album, record and song categoriesThe others: Dixie Chicks (2006), Eric Clapton (1992), Christopher Cross (1980), Carole King (1971) and Paul Simon (1970).
Adele also won best new artist in 2009, and her new shelf of trophies will make her a key figure to watch in the years to come.
The drama of her night was heightened by a moment of silence — just after she started singing "Rolling in the Deep" she and her band paused for a long beat, which caused a flicker of anxiety for audience members fretting about her throat condition. It was just a pause for drama amid a fairly flawless night. Adele joined Beyonce as the only woman to take home six Grammys in one night.
"This is ridiculous," Adele said on accepting record of the year, and then broke into tears when "21" was announced as the album winner to cap the show.
"This record is inspired by something everyone's been through, which is a rubbish relationship," she said. "It's gone on to do things I can't tell you…. It's been a life-changing year."
Adele shared the award for song of the year — the category honoring songwriters — with Paul Epworth for "Rolling in the Deep."
The Grammys are determined by about 13,000 voting members. The eligibility period for nominated recordings was Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2011.