The Grammys got underway Sunday night with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band playing a raucous version of their new single "We Take Care of Our Own."
But soon after Springsteen's music died down, the Recording Academy paid moving tribute to its recently deceased singing legend, Whitney Houston.
Show host LL Cool J opened with a brief statement. "There is no way around this. We've had a death in our family," he said. "At least for me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for the woman that we love. Our fallen sister, Whitney Houston."
After saying that brief prayer, LL Cool J introduced a snippet of Houston singing her powerful signature anthem, "I Will Always Love You," at the Grammys. The performance brought a standing ovation from the assembled pop superstars.
Much later in the show, following the "in memoriam" segment, Jennifer Hudson, the actress and former "American Idol" finalist, performed a tribute to the 48-year-old Houston by singing "I Will Always Love You." It was a tender, simple performance that encapsulated the glamour and vocal power Houston embodied.
She sang the last words of the song as: "Whitney, we love you."
Bathed in a solemn spotlight, Hudson performed in a sleek black gown, accompanied only by piano. She received a standing ovation while portraits of music luminaries who died in the past year were lit above her.
Houston died Saturday afternoon, on the eve of the Grammys, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where she was preparing to attend a pre-Grammy party. The investigation of her death is ongoing, and the events of the past 24 hours cast a huge shadow over the event.
That Houston's death came so soon before the CBS broadcast meant "a full-blown tribute" wasn't possible, said Grammy show producer Ken Ehrlich. He turned to Hudson on Saturday evening to hurriedly assemble a performance that Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, said was pulled together in hours of frantic phone calls.
"Musicians, by nature, improvise," said Portnow on the red carpet before the show.
Before the prime time tribute, as the pre-telecast awards ceremony began, co-host Dave Koz acknowledged the singer's death, noting the "great legacy of Miss Whitney Houston. She's in our hearts and our minds."
Presenter Jimmy Jam, a friend and producer of Houston's, said it "a bittersweet occasion tonight with the passing of Whitney."
"Anytime someone passes away, the thing you do is you gather your family together, tell stories," he said. "A little bit of mourning, little bit of celebrating -- this is our family tonight and we're going to do it the best that we can do it."
Melanie Fiona, who won best traditional R&B vocal performance and best R&B song with Cee-Lo for the song "Fool for You," also gave tribute to the fallen star: "Whitney Houston I would not be standing up here if it were not for you, thank you so much."
A moving moment came when Tony Bennett won his second Grammy of the evening, best pop performance by a duo/group, for his collaboration with Amy Winehouse, "Body and Soul." Winehouse, another supremely talented singer who had a long struggle with drugs and alcohol, died last year.
Bennett, who also won for the album "Duets II," brought both her parents, Mitch and Janis Winehouse, onstage to accept the award.
"We shouldn't be here, our darling daughter should be here. These are the cards that we're dealt," Mitch Winehouse said. "We miss our daughter so much."
Winehouse also referenced the deaths of Houston and Etta James, saying: "There's a beautiful girl band up there in heaven."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.