Whitney Houston was already a star for many years by the time of the 35th Annual Grammy Awards, winning her first Grammy eight years earlier. Yet it was this night that represented a stunning high point in Houston’s career. The singer and newly popular actress opened the show with a breathtakingly glamorous and suitably movie star-like performance of “I Will Always Love You” — the Dolly Parton classic Houston made her own on The Bodyguard soundtrack. Throughout the night, the audience would get to see a lot more of Houston — in the end, she won the awards for Record Of The Year, Album Of The Year, and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, while her producer, David Foster, took home the award for Producer Of The Year.
There were other notable winners at the 35th Annual Grammy Awards show, including Toni Braxton, who won Best New Artist and actually triumphed over Houston in the Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female, category (“Another Sad Love Song”). It was also an extremely animated evening for composer Alan Menken, who won four awards for music connected to the animated movie smash Aladdin: Song Of The Year for “A Whole New World” (sung by Regina Belle and Peabo Bryson), which Menken wrote with Tim Rice; Best Musical Album For Children; Best Instrumental Composition For A Motion Picture Or For Television; and Best Song Written Specifically For A Motion Picture Or For Television.
But it was the fascinating mutual admiration society of U2’s Bono and Frank Sinatra that created a good deal of buzz regarding this Grammy night. First, Bono surprised many by dropping the “F-bomb” into his solo acceptance speech for the Best Alternative Music Album award for Zooropa. Perhaps surprised to have won the award over such nominees as Nirvana, R.E.M. and the Smashing Pumpkins, Bono proclaimed, “I think I’d like to give a message to the young people of America — and that is we shall continue to abuse our position and fuck up the mainstream. God bless you.”
Later, Bono would strike a different tone in presenting Frank Sinatra with his Grammy Legend Award. Bono began his brilliant tone poem salute like this:
“Frank never did like rock and roll. He’s not crazy about guys wearing earrings either, but he doesn’t hold it against me and, anyway, the feeling is not mutual. Rock and roll people love Frank Sinatra because Frank Sinatra’s got what we want: swagger and attitude. He’s big on attitude, serious attitude, bad attitude. Frank’s Chairman of the Bad. Rock and roll plays at being tough, but this guy, well, he’s the Boss. The Boss of Bosses. The Man. The Big Bang of Pop. I’m not gonna mess with him, are you?”
Sinatra’s own comments would prove significantly more controversial. Sinatra — now approaching the age of 80 — was clearly moved by the huge standing ovation that he received — a reaction that seemed in the moment like a massive expression of respect and multigenerational reckoning. “Thank you very much,” he said when he finally spoke. “That’s the best welcome I ever had.” Sinatra’s comments from then on were a fascinating mix of vintage Rat Pack jokes (“This is more applause than Dean heard in his whole career”), personal thanks to his wife Barbara and even hurt feelings that he was not being asked to sing on this night. Yet for the record, even the aging Chairman’s rambling revealed singular phrasing.
Controversy ensued when Sinatra was cut off and the broadcast was taken to a commercial break before wrapping things up. Later The Academy let it be known that the decision had come from Sinatra’s camp, but the impression of disrespect had already been made. Even the Grammy host felt the need to distance himself on air from the decision, albeit with a memorable wink in the end. “Before I go on, I think you’d join me going on record that Mr. Sinatra should have finished his speech,” Garry Shandling told the audience. “I think that was a slight mistake. This is live television and I’m sure Mr. Sinatra will get even by cutting this show off in another hour.”
Sinatra wasn’t the only legend honored this night. Danny Glover set the stage before Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Aretha Franklin performed “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” noting that “There’s been a 27-year love affair going on between the Grammy voters and the Queen of Soul…[which] has produced offspring in the shape of Grammys numbering 15 so far.” Upon receiving her award, Franklin proclaimed, “I’m happy. I’m honored. I’m humbled.”
One of the true kings of soul — Curtis Mayfield — was also honored by a suitably soulful medley of his hits performed by Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Steve Winwood, Vernon Reid, Steve Cropper, Narada Michael Walden, and Tony! Toni! Toné! before receiving a richly deserved Grammy Legend Award, followed by an all-together fitting version of “Amen.”