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How do you present the music industry's most respected and star-studded awards ceremony just one night after the shocking death of one of its biggest icons? You send out a smooth-tongued, well-respected host, and let him strike the right tone. LL Cool J did just that on Sunday night at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, relaying both grief for a fallen friend and a call to celebrate music and the artists who've achieved nominations this year.
Dressed in a spiffy, black velvet Giorgio Armani double-breasted evening jacket and his signature newsboy cap, the rapper and star of CBS's NCIS: Los Angeles, who was the first Grammy host in seven years, welcomed the crowd and addressed the tragedy from the start.
"There's no way around it," he said. "We've had a death in our family. For me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for a woman who we love, for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston." Then the camera panned the packed audience of flamboyant pop stars, from the white-maned Nicki Minaj to the fish-net-veiled Lady Gaga, and row upon row of heads bowed for LL's benediction. Watch the benediction here:
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"Heavenly father, we thank you for sharing our sister Whitney with us," he said. "Today our thoughts are with her mother, her daughter and all of her loved ones. And although she is gone too soon, we remain truly blessed to have been touched by her beautiful spirit, and to have the legacy of her music to cherish and share forever. Amen."
It was an unusual way to begin the Grammy Awards, but it felt right under the circumstances. "We were up all night, and we just wanted to figure out [and] show Whitney Houston the love, the appreciation, and the respect she deserves based on her as a human being and the career that she had, and make sure that people know we care," LL told MTV News on the red carpet before the show. "And we are connected to her in that way."
Before the ceremony, LL had told Grammy producers that he'd like to publicly pray for Houston. "And we thought, if that’s what you would do and that's the words that would come out of your mouth, no need to write that, just do it from your heart," Recording Academy president Neil Portnow told The Hollywood Reporter after the show.
But LL was also careful to keep the ceremony from turning into a huge memorial service. "There are so many other artists here that are nominated," he told MTV. "This is a new Grammy experience for some of them, some are back again, and they deserve to have a good time and enjoy themselves and not be weighed down by the burden."
LL's introductions and segues were respectful, and a far cry from the snarky witticisms that usually characterize award-show hosts these days. He was just what the Grammys needed in the wake of a tragedy. This was a lucky turn for the show's producers. Imagine if they'd booked Ricky Gervais!