By Gerrick D. Kennedy
LOS ANGELES — With Whitney Houston’s tragic passing 24 hours before Sunday’s telecast, Neil Portnow and producers of the Grammy Awards show were forced to scramble to figure out the most appropriate way to honor the fallen pop star.
In the hours following the news, Grammy executive producer Ken Ehrlich and his team announced former “American Idol” diva Jennifer Hudson would perform a “respectful musical tribute” on the show; and it was reported she would be joined by soul/funk diva Chaka Khan.
Ultimately Khan backed out and the powerhouse Hudson performed an understated, yet poignant, version of Houston’s signature “I Will Always Love You.” Show host LL Cool J began the ceremony with a semi-impromptu prayer.
“We decided to address this right on top of the show. We are able to be nimble,” Portnow said backstage on Sunday. “We’ve changed stuff an hour before. There was a creative discussion. Because it’s so fresh and significant. (LL Cool J) said, ‘What I would do is say a prayer.’ And we thought if that’s what you would do, no need to write that. Just do it from your heart.”
Portnow said despite his personal grief, he had to quickly assume a “dad” role to press forward.
“Whitney was a personal friend. I was at Arista when we signed her. I watched her take the stage for the first time on ‘The Merv Griffin Show,’” said a more sullen Portnow. “First thing I had to do was steel myself to go to work. Really, in my responsibility, I’m in the dad role and I have to take care of my family.”
“We had to do something,” he said. “But what did that look like? What would that be? It needed to be simple. It needed to be elegant. It needed to be healing because we are all hurting.”
Emotions ran high through the pre-show and the ceremony, with numerous winners paying tribute to not just Houston in their speeches, but also to family members and fellow musicians. Mitch Winehouse perfectly summed up the sense of loss from the past year when he accepted the Grammy for best pop performance by a duo or group for his late daughter Amy’s duet with Tony Bennett.
“Long live Whitney Houston, long live Amy Winehouse, long live Etta James. What can I say? There’s a beautiful girl band up in heaven.”
Portnow said the ceremony turned out to be one of the heavier telecasts he’s been involved with.
“This is the most emotional Grammys I’ve ever been involved in. But, it needed to be. Not only because of Whitney,” he said. “Look at Adele. Look at Glen Campbell. All the drama and emotion around that. Also the Beach Boys, these are a group of guys that really hadn’t been that nice to each other (in recent years). The theme to me was emotion. It was very strong in the house.”