The GRAMMYs threw itself a pretty wild 40th birthday party at New York’s Radio City Music Hall — a night of great highs and even some interesting lows. This was the evening that a resurgent Bob Dylan gave arguably his greatest televised performance ever with a focused and mysterious version of “Love Sick” from the Album Of The Year-winning Time Out Of Mind — only to find himself joined by an unwelcome stage crasher with the curious words “Soy Bomb” scrawled on his torso. The latter was not alone in rushing the stage — rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard of Wu-Tang Clan fame decided to take the stage during Shawn Colvin’s acceptance speech for Song Of The Year (“Sunny Came Home”) to declare, among other things, “Wu-Tang are for the children.” Somehow it all added up to an entertaining night of surprises — pleasant or otherwise.
Hosting in a tuxedo with tails, “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer formally addressed the matter right up front: “The GRAMMYs turn 40 tonight and who better to guide her into middle age than a mature, sober individual such as myself. And given the fact that four out of five of you will not get GRAMMYs tonight, it didn’t seem like a bad idea to have a psychiatrist on hand.” Right he turned out to be.
It was a particularly big night for Will Smith, who opened the evening Big Willie Style performing both “Men In Black” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Even more moving was his acceptance speech for Best Rap Solo Performance. “This is actually the first time that I’ve ever been on a GRAMMY stage,” Smith said, explaining that as part of D.J. Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince, he had won the first GRAMMY ever given to a rap artist at the 31st show. “But the GRAMMYs, they weren’t televising the rap portion, you know, so we boycotted,” he said. Three years later, the pair won another GRAMMY, but didn’t think they had a chance, so they didn’t attend. He then spoke movingly about feeling disconnected from the music during “the rap dark ages” a few years earlier, but that artists like Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. had inspired him to make music again. After threatening to give the speeches from the shows he missed, Smith then dedicated this GRAMMY victory to the late rappers’ memories, and said their deaths had reminded him and other artists that they “have a responsibility…for what goes into the impressionable ears of the people listening to the music we make.”
Other performance highlights included everything from a crowd-pleasing medley of Rumours hits from Fleetwood Mac — the album had been named Album Of The Year exactly 20 years earlier — to Wyclef Jean and Erykah Badu powerfully merging his “Gone Till November” and her “On & On” (which won Best Female R&B Vocal Performance). R. Kelly soared performing “I Believe I Can Fly” before winning in the Best Male R&B Vocal Performance category and thanking everyone from Michael Jordan to Bugs Bunny for his big Space Jam hit.
After all the commotion and fun, Bob Dylan — a three-time winner on the night — had a way of bringing it all back to the music. When Sheryl Crow, Usher and John Fogerty presented him with the night’s final award for Album Of The Year, Dylan reflected back in time. “One time when I was about 16 or 17 years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at a Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him and he looked at me,” Dylan recalled. “And I just have some kind of feeling that he was — I don’t know how or why — but I know he was with us all the time when we were making this record in some kind of way. In the words of the immortal Robert Johnson, ‘The stuff we got will bust your brains out.’” And on this historic night, Dylan did just that.
Finally, the 40th Annual GRAMMYs also featured what is considered to be the greatest last-second substitution act in GRAMMY history. When GRAMMY Legend Award recipient Luciano Pavarotti’s throat problems caused him to cancel his performance of “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s opera Turandot just a few hours before showtime, the GRAMMY production team was able to get Aretha Franklin — who had sung the same piece at the MusiCares Person Of The Year fundraiser two nights earlier — to step in “literally at a moment’s notice,” as Sting said in his introduction. Fortunately, the Queen of Soul showed a new side of her extraordinary talent to a watching world, and helped save this GRAMMY performance.