Grammys 2015: Sound and hurry as performers rehearse for the show

The crew puts a final buff and polish on the Grammy telecast's first Spanish-language performance in a decade, delivered by Colombian rock star Juanes, center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A disembodied voice echoed through the cavernous expanse of Staples Center on Thursday, booming the phrase “Cello mike — one, two, three, four….” And then the sound of a piano floated through the arena, telegraphing the opening for Annie Lennox’s performance of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You.”

And so began rehearsals for Sunday’s 57th Grammy Awards show, the home stretch in a process that’s been underway since the nominees were announced in December.

Thursday’s session found Lennox paired with Irish singer-songwriter Hozier in a mash-up of his best-song-nominated “Take Me to Church” and Hawkins’ haunting R&B hit from more than half a century ago.

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The Grammy Awards telecast boasts 23 live-performance segments — far more than any other televised awards show — along with the select number of trophies that will be handed out to winners on camera, culled from 83 Grammy categories this year.

The show is a musical and technological jigsaw puzzle presided over by Ken Ehrlich, the telecast’s longtime executive producer; Jack Sussman, CBS-TV’s vice president of live events and specials; and Neil Portnow, Recording Academy president.

Among the other artists on tap for Sunday’s show (some in award contention and some not) are Kanye West, Paul McCartney, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Pharrell Williams, Sam Smith, Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani, Herbie Hancock, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, Chinese pianist Lang Lang, John Mayer, Ed Sheeran and Dwight Yoakam.

Most performances are rehearsed privately by each musician, then fleshed out with the onstage production in front of the cameras. From Thursday through Sunday morning, each act typically gets an hour to polish its presentation.

Thursday was the first time Sia ran through a performance of her monster 2014 hit, “Chandelier,” and Colombian rock star Juanes got a chance to sound-check his song “Juntos,” which will be the first Spanish-language performance on the Grammy telecast in a decade. At the end of the evening, Madonna and her cast-of-dozens entourage set about working out any kinks in her grand-scale production of “Living for Love” before the TV cameras turn on, putting her and the other musicians in front of a global audience of tens of millions on Sunday.

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Hozier and Lennox harmonized on both their songs, and Hozier supplied the guitar solo during Lennox’s half of their medley. On “Take Me to Church,” she added her distinctively dusky, soulful voice to his spiritually themed plea to a lover.

“When they said I had an opportunity to sing with her, I said I’ll do anything — it doesn’t matter,” said the 24-year-old musician born Andrew Hozier-Byrne. “I’m such a fan.”

Lennox noted the Celtic connection between the two and said, “I don’t know what we inherit, [but] as soon as he started singing, something in the quality of his voice, the color of his voice, it’s like, ‘I know this.’ It is really cutlural.” She also noted the full-circle aspect on the nomination of her “Nostalgia” album in the traditional pop vocal album category.

That project, which featured interpretations of pop standards along with rock and soul classics, came to fruition last year when Lennox was in Los Angeles to take part in the Grammy-CBS 50th anniversary tribute to the Beatles’ 1964 American TV debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She told musician and Blue Note Records President Don Was about the tracks she was working up on her own; he signed her to his label and released the Grammy-nominated album in October.

Also nominated along with “Nostalgia” in the traditional pop vocal album category were recordings by Tony Bennett with Lady Gaga, Barry Manilow, Johnny Mathis and Barbra Streisand. Lennox noted the recent rash of releases revisiting the classics.

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“Maybe everybody sinks somehow into the zeitgeist, or we all have our antenna out,” she said.

Relating Bob Dylan’s new standards album, “Shadows in the Night,” to her own, she said, “You could say it’s a covers album, but it truly is different, because it’s about the interpretation. It isn’t just about doing a version of it in a kind of ersatz fashion.”

Bennett, 88, also spoke to the ongoing life of the songs he’s championed for most of his 60-plus-year recording career.

“These are the greatest songs that ever came out of America,” Bennett said in his signature sandpaper voice.

The Grammy telecast’s performance spots are highly coveted among pop musicians. Often even more than Grammy wins, the televised performances can translate into increased prestige and industry credibility as well as boosts in sales of recordings and concert tickets.

That makes Juanes’ appearance on the show all the more meaningful to him.

“It’s a great honor,” he said shortly before stepping up on the circular second stage in the middle of the arena that will host several of the evening’s live numbers. “For the Grammys to invite someone from Colombia, it shows great respect for our culture.”

Ehrlich said the decision to have Juanes sing in Spanish was not a hard sell.

“Everybody wanted to do this,” he said.

For the fourth consecutive year, the ceremony will be emceed by rapper-actor LL Cool J, who swung by rehearsals Thursday afternoon to check in with the show’s organizers and exchange greetings with the other musicians.

Cool J, whose given name is Todd Smith, watched the beginning of Madonna’s first run-through and smiled at an onlooker after she discussed a couple of technical glitches with the crew. “Give her a pass!” he said. “Give her a pass! It’s still early.”

A couple of hours earlier, he praised what he’d seen during Sia’s number.

“Extremely innovative,” he said. “That’s what the Grammy show is all about.”

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Twitter: @RandyLewis2