Highlighting the Grammys return to New York for the first time in 15 years, Knight took part in a Broadway medley that included Tony winners Ben Platt and Leslie Odom Jr. singing “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen and “The Room Where It Happens” from Hamilton, respectively, before Knight sang a moving version of Leiber and Stoller’s “Stand By Me” featured in Smokey Joe’s Cafe, that had the audience up and swaying. As Davis noted, the R&B icon could not leave the stage without singing her classic, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which turned into a room sing-a-long.
To honor JAY-Z, his friend and collaborator Keys performed the evening’s highlight, an inventive piano medley reimagining several songs spanning his career, starting with “Feeling It” from his 1996 studio album debut, Reasonable Doubt, and winding through “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” “Hard Knock Life,” “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me), “Izzo (H.O.V.A.), “Encore,” “Holy Grail,” “Run This Town” and, of course, the pair’s 2009 Billboard Hot 100 chart topper, “Empire State of Mind.”
In his acceptance speech, 21-time Grammy winner JAY-Z acknowledged his rocky relationship with the Grammys, including boycotting the awards ceremony starting in 1999 after DMX wasn’t nominated in 1998. JAY-Z said, “a beautiful lady whom I love dearly” prompted his return in 2004 when Beyonce, whom he referred to as “The First Lady of Music,” was nominated for her debut solo album, Crazy in Love.
“Art is super subjective,” he continued. “The Academy, they’re human like we are and voting on things that they like,” alluding to the lack of diversity among Grammy winners -- only one rap album has won album of the year. However, he stressed that non-involvement was not the right course of action because “we see the most incredible artists stand on that stage ... So I was, ‘I have to be here’ ... That’s the whole idea: for all of us to get involved and to push this thing further.”
Before leaving the podium, JAY-Z, who leads all Grammy nominees with year with eight nods, made sure to stress one final point: artistry is not dependent upon awards. “Bob Marley is Bob Marley. Tupac is Tupac. Biggie is Biggie.”
In introducing Hudson, Davis, who emceed the evening, announced that the Oscar winner had been handpicked by Aretha Franklin to play the icon in a Franklin biopic. As if there were any doubt that the choice was a wise one, Hudson closed the evening with an incendiary medley of Franklin tunes, including “Rocksteady,” “Think,” “Respect,” “Day Dreaming,” “You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman),” and “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You).” As if already preparing for the role, Hudson even wore a long mink coat that she dropped to the floor as she sang in a patented Franklin move.
Other performers included Barry Manilow (“This is My Town,” “New York, New York”), Luis Fonsi (“Echame La Culpa,” “Despacito”), Migos (“Bad and Boujee”), Best New Artist nominee Khalid (“Young Dumb & Broke), and Logic and Khalid (“1-800-273-8255").
Before the performance portion of the evening, the A-Listers rubbed shoulders during a cocktail hour and dinner. Martha Stewart told Billboard that in Sunday’s Grammy Album of the Year showdown between JAY-Z and Kendrick Lamar, she was Team JAY-Z, simply stating that he was “better.” Newly named Today co-anchor Hoda Kotb wasn’t rooting for anyone in particular, but admitted a deep fondness for “Marry Me,” off Thomas Rhett’s best country album nominee Life Changes, calling the song “powerful and devastating.”
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, last year’s Tony winners for Dear Evan Hansen and Oscar winners for La La Land (and contenders this year for “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman) bum-rushed fellow Oscar winner Hans Zimmer bowing down before the composer with a “We’re not Worthy” gesture. The three had been seated together at the Golden Globes, where Pasek and Paul won for “This is Me.” The song faces stiff competition at the Oscars, including from Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s “Remember Me” from Coco. But Pasek admitted he couldn’t begrudge the “Let It Go” writers if they won, telling Billboard, “I used to babysit for their daughter. I love them.”
In addition to Kotb, the event drew a number of East Coast-based news anchors and pundits, including CNN’s Don Lemon, ABC’s David Muir, CBS This Morning co-anchor Gayle King, HBO’s John Oliver, who was spotted chatted with Tina Fey during the cocktail hour, and Katie Couric, who introduced the 85-year-old Davis, calling him the “original American Idol,” and noting the popularity of the event, which is in its 42nd year: “For one night only, Springsteen on Broadway is not the hottest ticket in town.”
Aside from the usual top-tier music executives, among the other celebrities and artists in attendance were John Legend and Chrissy Teigen; Nick Jonas; Lang Lang; Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White; Pink (who gave newly named RCA co-president Joe Riccitelli a huge hug to congratulate him on his promotion); Jimmy Jam; Timbaland; Cardi B (who cheered on fiance Offset during Migos’ set); Lil Uzi Vert; Ludacris; Maxwell; The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir; DJ Khaled; and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was greeted equally with cheers and good-hearted boos as his team heads into the Super Bowl next Sunday (Feb. 4) with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Assistance in preparing this story provided by Frank DiGiacomo.