By Brian Ives
The GRAMMY Awards can usually be relied on to pay tribute to recently fallen musical icons. Whether or not they do those icons justice, though, is up for debate. Did they book the right artists? Did they choose the right songs? Did they try to shove too much into one medley? Trying to do too many things in a short amount of time can, sometimes, make what should have been a heartfelt tribute seem tacky. Here’s five times that they got it right (and the one thing they have in common: no medleys).
1. Jennifer Hudson sings Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” – The day before the 54th Annual GRAMMY Awards in 2012, Whitney Houston was found dead in her hotel room. The entire music community was shaken by the news; meanwhile the GRAMMY producers needed to find a way to shuffle their show to make room for a tribute. Even more difficult was the task of finding an artist who could do justice to one of the greatest singers ever. Jennifer Hudson was the right choice: she was transcendent on Houston’s signature ballad. It was a moment we wish we never had to experience, but it’s one we’ll never forget.
2. Christina Aguilera sings James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”– 2007’s 49th Annual GRAMMY Awards took place less than two months after the death of James Brown. The GRAMMY producers could have taken the medley route here — surely there would have been a number of A-listers lining up to pay tribute to the Godfather of Soul. Instead, they chose one song — the ballad “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and just one singer to perform it. Christina Aguilera was perhaps not the obvious choice, but she blew the roof off of the Staples Center.
3. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and Steven Van Zandt cover the Clash’s “London Calling,” in tribute to Joe Strummer – Punk rock and the GRAMMYs have never been bedfellows, to say the least. But the unexpected death of Joe Strummer in December of 2002 shook the rock world, and four icons got together to pay tribute to the man, via an explosive performance of “London Calling” at the 45th Annual GRAMMY Awards in 2003. Springsteen, Costello, Grohl and Van Zandt all played guitar and split lead vocals, and were backed by Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas and No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal. Although that was about two guitars too many for punk rock, it still worked. Rock doesn’t always make sense on the GRAMMYs, but this time it did.
4. Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, Timothy B. Schmit, Jordan Zevon perform Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart” – This one was a tear-jerker. Most tributes feature a song from the artist’s commercial heyday. But the GRAMMY “In Memorandum” section at the 46th Annual GRAMMY Awards in 2004 ended with a video of Warren Zevon recording “Keep Me In Your Heart” — one of his final songs. He wrote it to his family about his impending death as he struggled with inoperable cancer. As the video played, his friends and family then appeared on stage, singing along with Zevon, only a few months after he was laid to rest.
5. Elton John, Mavis Staples, Zac Brown, Mumford & Sons, Brittany Howard perform the Band’s “The Weight” in tribute to Levon Helm – Generally speaking, too many people on stage can weigh down a rock song (no pun intended). But the Band’s songs, and “The Weight” in particular, seem designed for crowded stages (perhaps that’s because the Band had three great vocalists in Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm). This performance from the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards in 2013 embodied the spirit of The Last Waltz, uniting performers from different genres and generations into one moving performance.
6. The Eagles and Jackson Browne perform “Take It Easy” in tribute to Glenn Frey – Less than a month after the death of Eagles singer/guitarist Glenn Frey, his surviving bandmates – Don Henley, Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh, along with founding Eagle Bernie Leadon – backed Jackson Browne for a moving performance of the Eagles’ first hit, which Frey and Browne co-wrote.