The 57th Grammy Awards belonged to Sam Smith, the freshman British singer-songwriter who took home three of the four top awards — and underscored the lightning speed in which an artist can capture the popular imagination in the age of YouTube and social media.
Smith was virtually unknown outside his native England a year ago. On Sunday, his breakthrough hit “Stay With Me” was named record and song of the year, barely eight months after the release of his debut album. Smith, 22, was also recognized as best new artist, and his “In the Lonely Hour” took the pop vocal album award.
Smith, the first openly gay artist to win record of the year, thanked the man who inspired “Stay With Me” when he took the stage to accept the award.
FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards 2015
“Thank you so much for breaking my heart,” Smith said. “You got me four Grammys. ... Dear Lord, thank you so much; this is the best night of my life.”
“In the Lonely Hour” has sold nearly 2 million albums in the U.S. and more than 5 million worldwide, paving the way for Smith’s rapid leap to arena headliner: He played Madison Square Garden in New York in January and filled two nights at the 18,000-capacity Forum in Inglewood lastmonth.
Musical similarities between Smith’s song, which he wrote with James Napier and William Phillips, and Tom Petty’s 1989 single “I Won’t Back Down” resulted in partial songwriting credit being given to Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne. But on Sunday night, there was little evidence of anything but unbridled enthusiasm for Smith and the song from academy voters and the Staples audience.
Smith missed out on a sweep of the four top Grammy categories in which he was nominated when Los Angeles maverick rock singer-songwriter-producer Beck scored an upset win for his widely lauded “Morning Phase” album. The hotly watched category also included the latest works by pop-R&B queen Beyonce, omnipresent “Happy” singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams and rising British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran.
Beck’s album sold nowhere near the numbers of the Beyonce, Smith and Pharrell albums, but some industry observers had predicted it could slip through to win if the pop-R&B vote was split between Beyonce and Williams and the youthful indie singer-songwriter-minded academy members divided their votes between Smith and Sheeran.
Earlier in the evening, Beck also collected the rock album Grammy over works from Ryan Adams, the Black Keys, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and U2.
“Albums — remember those?” said Prince as he presented the album award. He injected a pithy bit of social commentary: “Like books, and black lives, albums still matter.”
It was one of several moments that connected the often insular and self-congratulatory world of entertainment awards shows to events in the real world.
Pharrell Williams transformed “Happy,” his omnipresent feel-good hit of 2014, into social commentary during one of the ceremony’s most powerful musical performances: In an allusion to racially tinged clashes during the last year, dancers in dark hooded sweat shirts raised their hands as if surrendering, before the number shifted into its signature mood of celebration.
Dressed as a bellhop, Williams gave a stern spoken introduction to a haunting minor-key orchestral accompaniment written by film composer Hans Zimmer, who also joined Williams onstage — adding his electric guitar to the cross-genre number that also featured Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang, a gospel choir, yellow-robed members of a string orchestra and a raft of multiethnic dancers and singers.
It segued into a public service announcement from President Obama promoting the “It’s On Us” campaign to combat domestic violence, followed by another message from domestic abuse survivor Brooke Axtell, injecting another topic that’s been in the news.
Recording Academy President Neil Portnow addressed the flip side of how changing technology has affected many musicians, who find it considerably harder to earn livings at their craft in an age when music is circulated on the Internet for free. He made a bid for legislation that assures that “artists are compensated fairly for their work.”
The show ran almost 3 hours and 40 minutes, concluding with a performance by R&B singer-songwriter John Legend and rapper Common of their song “Glory” from the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma,” one more acknowledgment of strained race relations that have erupted in many cities.
Some of that tension figured into the Grammy nominations, notably over the presence of Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” single and “The New Classic” album in the single, song and rap album categories. Some criticized her inclusion as cultural appropriation of a fundamentally African American form of music because she is white and from a country with little history of urban rap. But academy voters avoided further fueling the debate by ignoring Azalea’s works. The rap album award went to white Detroit rapper Eminem, who has won the category five times previously.
Otherwise, Sunday’s show was the usual production-heavy program in which live performances vastly outnumbered the presentation of actual awards. Some 33 acts took part in 23 musical numbers, compared to 10 awards handed out on camera. Winners of the other 73 Grammy categories were announced earlier in the day, before the broadcast began.
After winning the pop vocal album award, Smith said: “I just want to say that, before this album, I tried everything to try to get my music heard. I tried losing weight and I was making terrible music. It wasn’t until I started being myself that people started to listen.”
A saucy ode to the physical and emotional — but mostly physical — pleasures of marital bliss, Beyonce’s duet with husband Jay Z, “Drunk In Love,” took the honor for R&B performance.
“Wow, thank you guys so much,” Beyonce said, looking out on the crowd at Staples Center in Los Angeles that included her husband, who remained in his seat. “I’d like to thank God and … thank you to my Beyhive, thank you, guys, for working so hard,” a reference to the nickname of her fan base.
Among the highlights of the pre-telecast awards, 88-year-old pop crooner Tony Bennett shared an award with 28-year-old pop performance artist Lady Gaga for their collaborative album “Cheek to Cheek,” named the best traditional pop vocal album over works by Annie Lennox, Barry Manilow, Johnny Mathis and Barbra Streisand. They also sang the title track during their segment on the show.
It was one of several cross-generational collaborations that have become one of the Grammy show’s signature elements. Veteran Welsh pop singer Tom Jones teamed with English pop star Jessie J on the Righteous Brothers’ 1964 hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” as a salute to Brill Building songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, recipients of one of this year’s Trustees Awards. Other veteran-newcomer teamings were 24-year-old Irish singer Hozier with 60-year-old Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox; and rapper Kanye West, pop-R&B princess Rihanna and 72-year-old Beatle Paul McCartney.
An emotional favorite going into Sunday’s awards, veteran country singer-guitarist Glen Campbell generated two Grammys related to his journey into Alzheimer’s disease. “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” the closing-credit song he wrote and recorded with Julian Raymond for James Keach’s documentary film “Glen Campbell … I’ll Be Me,” was named best country song, and the Band Perry’s performance of his 1967 hit “Gentle On My Mind” for the film collected country duo or group performance award.
The Recording Academy consists of about 22,000 members, including musicians, producers, engineers and myriad record industry personnel. About 13,000 are voting members who determined this year’s Grammy winners. The eligibility period for recordings that were considered for this year’s awards was Oct. 1, 2013, through Sept. 30, 2014.
Times staff writers August Brown and Nardine A. Saad contributed to this report.