In a night full of homages, one of the most emotive came in praise of Glen Campbell, the country legend now suffering from Alzheimer's. He released "Ghost on the Canvas," intended to be his final album, last year. The Band Perry and Blake Shelton each laid down Campbell classics before the man himself took the stage for his signature song, "Rhinestone Cowboy" -- in one of his trademark jackets. He punctuated the song's verses with shouts of "Thank you!" and "Oh yeah!", looking confident and happy to be on stage.
Finally, Houston got her musical due. Jennifer Hudson, alone under a spotlight and an image of Houston, offered a simple, stunning version of "I Will Always Love You" that drew cheers even from the press room. As she sang, Houston's image was joined by the other faces of the "In Memoriam" montage.
Tony Bennett made another strong case for the veterans, singing "It Had to Be You" with a smiling Carrie Underwood before the two announced the Best New Artist winner.
Bon Iver won the tight category, besting Skrillex and Nicki Minaj, among others.
"It's really hard to accept this award," the band's Justin Vernon said. "But there's so much talent out here, like on this stage, and a lot of talent that's not here tonight.
"When I started to make songs, I did it for the inherent reward of making songs, so I'm a little bit uncomfortable up here," he said, before thanking the voters for the "sweet hook-up."
Before the broadcast, he took the stage for his win for Best Alternative Album.
"Thank you, thanks to all the nominees, non-nominees for this category, it feels pretty special," he said, in contrast to his ambivalent past remarks about the Grammys. He closed by name-dropping his label, the Bloomington, Ind., indie Jagjaguwar.
Among the other awards, a rock mainstay, a hip-hop heavyweight and an electronic newcomer were among the big winners on Sunday night.
The Foo Fighters made a clean sweep of the rock categories, scoring victories for Best Rock Performance, Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Album for "Wasting Light." The band's "Back and Forth" also won Best Long Form Music Video.
"This record was a special record for our band," frontman Dave Grohl said. "We made this one in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine… Singing into a microphone and playing an instrument and learning to do your craft is the most important thing for people to do. It's not about being perfect, it's not about what goes on in a computer."
As he was played off by an electro beat, he shouted, "Long live rock 'n' roll!"
And in a similarly dominant run, Kanye West and Jay-Z's "Otis," won Best Rap Performance in the first hip-hop award of the broadcast -- the fourth award of the day for West, who was a no-show at the ceremony, despite leading the nominations with seven. During the pre-show, he picked up Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for "All of the Lights" and Best Rap Album for that track's source, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."
Dubstep DJ Skrillex made an early mark at the Grammy awards, picking up three awards during the afternoon pre-telecast segment. The musician, a Best New Artist nominee this year's awards, started the day by winning Best Remix Recording for his take on Benny Bennassi's "Cinema."
"Just a year and a half ago I was making that song in my bedroom," he said from the stage. "I was living in an illegal warehouse space in downtown L.A.
"I think it's awesome that we're all getting recognized this year," he said of the electronic dance music community that's risen to mainstream popularity in recent months. "Justice, 'Cross,' should've won a Grammy, Daft Punk -- but this is going to open doors for everyone."
At this year's awards, Skrillex opened his own doors, adding Best Dance Recording and Dance/Electronic Album to his collection.
The influence of electronic dance was one of the sonic stories of the evening, with the thump of house beats announcing their position on the Grammy stage in performances by Brown as well as Rihanna. Thousands in the audience were handed glowing bracelets for Rihanna and Coldplay's performance, which segued from the Bahamian diva's Calvin Harris-produced "We Found Love" to their joint hit "Princess of China." And the genre continued its neon invasion with a glow stick-filled superstar performance later in the show that teamed up Brown, DJ David Guetta and Lil Wayne before seguing to the Foo Fighters and Deadmau5.
To open the afternoon segment, which streamed online at Grammy.com, the Larry Batiste Orchestra and show co-host Dave Koz hit the stage with some breezy Latin jazz. The sax player returned to the stage with MC Lyte for a performance of 1996's "Cold Rock a Party" -- the song preceded the duo's hosting duties for the Grammys' afternoon segment.
"We would both like to acknowledge the legacy of Miss Whitney Houston," Koz said in his opening remarks, the first tribute in a night full of them for the iconic singer.
She earned another nod from Amy Winehouse's father, Mitch, who gave an emotional speech after his late daughter and Tony Bennett won the award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for "Body and Soul."
"Tony's collaboration meant so much to her and she was so excited about 'Body and Soul' because it was my favorite song," Mitch said, as his wife, Janis, and Bennett looked on. "So that was a beautiful moment. Love live Whitney Houston. Long live Amy Winehouse. Long live Etta James. There's a beautiful girl band up there in heaven."
The awards included many for Grammy mainstays: Tony Bennett earned his fifteenth and sixteenth Grammys for the "Body and Soul" nod and Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for "Duets II."
"Isn't that wonderful?" Bennett said. "It's the first album i've ever had that went to No. 1 in Billboard and it's selling all over the world… and it's an amazing wonderful experience."
Alison Krauss and Union Station's "Paper Planes" was honored twice, in the Best Bluegrass Album and Best Engineering, Non-Classical categories. The former award was Krauss' 27th Grammy.
And Taylor Swift, a past Album of the Year winner, took home two country awards during the pre-show.
"This one means a lot to me because it's [for] a song called 'Mean,' and there's nothing like writing a song about someone who's mean to you and makes your life completely miserable and winning a Grammy for it," Swift smiled, drawing laughs and applause from the crowd. Swift and the song won both Best Country Song and Best Country Solo Performance.
She played the song with a band big enough to fill out an orchestra. But the spotlight was on Swift alone as she led the crowd in clapping, editing a lyric to "Someday, I'll be singing this at the Grammys."
The winners also saw honors for a number of prominent newcomers. Beyond Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, who surprised many with last year's Album of the Year win, picked up an award during the afternoon pre-show for Best Recording Package, for the "Scenes From the Suburbs" DVD/CD deluxe edition. Self-described "word of mouth" duo the Civil Wars picked up two awards, for Best Country Duo/Group Performance and Best Folk Album for their debut, "Barton Hollow."
And in one early upset, comedian Louis CK won his first award for Best Comedy Album, beating perennial Grammy favorite "Weird" Al Yankovic.
Among the classic rock contingent, Paul McCartney picked up Best Historical Album for the reissue of "Band on the Run," while Bruce Springsteen's "The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story" earned Best Box or Special Limited Edition Package.
Kirk Franklin was the night's first two-trophy winner, taking home Best Gospel Album and Best Gospel Song before Skrillex's multiple wins.
While Houston was on the minds of many Grammy participants, she and Winehouse weren't the only late artists whose shadow fell upon the ceremony. Cachoa, who passed at 89 just months after completing "The Last Mambo", drew a heartfelt tribute from his collaborators for his win in the Best Tropical Latin Album Category.
Paul McCartney returned to the stage at ceremony's end to wrap things up, joined by Springsteen, Grohl and others for a fiery Beatles medley. The rocker closed with "The End," a fitting conclusion to a show that spent much of its three-and-a-half hours looking to the past.