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Chicago's Jennifer Hudson delivered a moving tribute Sunday night at the Grammy Awards by singing one of Whitney Houston's biggest hits, "I Will Always Love You." (Getty Images)


Even before the death of Whitney Houston the day before, the 54th annual Grammy Awards were poised to be a performance-packed soap opera.

Adele's back after throat surgery! Rihanna and Chris Brown are in the same room together! Lots of people have died, and sweet ol' Glen Campbell's saying goodbye!

But Sunday night's Grammys were telenovela-free and performance-focused. The actual gramophones, per the Recording Academy's strategy to battle declining award-show ratings, were barely a sideshow to the three-and-a-half-hour ceremony's 18 performances by more than 30 artists.

Early winners at the Grammys: Kanye West, Skrillex

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Tonight's telecast of the 54th annual Grammy Awards will feature nearly two dozen performances by more than 30 artists, and it'll be a miracle if it fits into its scheduled three-and-a-half timeslot. That chunk of time will feature only about 10 award presentations, which means most of the awards were given out earlier Sunday.

Among the early winners ...

Kanye West, who leads this year's nominations with seven, has picked up three trophies -- nearly sweeping the rap categories by winning rap album (for "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"), rap song and rap song collaboration (both for "All of the Lights").

Chicago Grammy contenders: Kanye, Wilco, Lupe, more

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Kanye West topped last night's Grammy nominations with a total of seven, all the while he was performing here in his hometown in the first of two shows at the United Center with pal and collaborator Jay-Z.

West's nominations split between his own acclaimed album, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," and the recent joint effort with Jay-Z, "Watch the Throne." In the category of best rap song, West's "All of the Lights" competes with "Otis" from "Watch the Throne."

Nominees for the 54th annual Grammy Awards include numerous other Chicago pop music acts ...

The most common question on so many minds -- about two acts, in particular -- last night and today seems to be: Who the @#$%! is that?

Sunday night's Grammy Awards, never a bastion of youth and fresh thinking, contained some real wrenches -- surprise awards to genuinely creative talents that are not, by any means, household names.

This may not be a watershed moment, no Tahrir Square-worthy revolution in the establishment thinking of the Recording Academy -- to wit, Paul McCartney's Grammy for "Helter Skelter," for Pete's sake -- but this particular commercial democracy produced some head-scratching results that made for one of the most interesting Grammy ceremonies in a long, long time.

The aftermath of Arcade Fire and Esperanza Spalding ...

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Eminem sailed into Sunday's night's Grammy Awards on cruise control as the odds-on favorite, with 10 nominations and much love for his comeback album, "Recovery," and his appearance in a pride-swelling Super Bowl ad last week. He was the Rahm Emanuel of the Grammys. Most folks just assumed he would sweep the whole shebang.

Denied! The Detroit rapper lost most of his categories, but did win for best rap album. As the night wore on -- another three-and-a-half-hour marathon of few awards and a lot of fiery performances -- his odds worsened for album of the year. That final category shocked everyone, including the winner: Canadian alt-rock band Arcade Fire for "The Suburbs."

Again, the 53rd annual Grammy Awards ceremony continued its recent trend, going light on the trophies while packing in mashed-up collaborations that seemed contrived on paper. But they resulted in a Grammys show that was the most entertaining -- and musically rich -- in memory.

Lady Gaga hatches from egg to express herself at Grammys

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Lady Gaga finally entered an awards show without causing a stir about her outfit -- because we couldn't see what she had on. We couldn't see anything. The "controversial" pop diva -- notorious for some wild event outfits, including a dress made of raw meat at September's MTV Video Music Awards -- was carried along the Grammys red carpet inside a mostly opaque, greenish-white egg.

After the top-volume Aretha Franklin tribute opened the show, Gaga's egg was carried on stage, from which she began singing her new single, "Born This Way." Since its release on Friday, the song has been the subject of a blogging frenzy about its uncanny resemblance to Madonna's "Express Yourself." In her Grammys performance, wearing a subdued flowy dress of muted cream and yellow tones, the similarities were enhanced by choreography that mimicked the right-angle joints of the "Express Yourself" video as well as every forearm weave from "Vogue."

Before the egg hatched, Gaga had won two ("Bad Romance" picked up pop vocal performance and short-form music video) and lost two (dance album, pop collaboration with vocals) of her six nominations. Midway through the show, she won for pop vocal album ("The Fame Monster"). Her acceptance speech sold the same against-all-odds story Justin Bieber sells (who was actually telling these people they wouldn't succeed?) and thanked Whitney Houston: "When I wrote 'Born This Way,' I imagined she was singing it because I wasn't secure enough in myself."

Grammys open with decibel-busting Aretha Franklin tribute

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"Music's biggest night" opened with a larger-than-life production number: five throaty women singing a half dozen Aretha Franklin hits.

The Queen of Soul was hospitalized late last year for an undisclosed ailment -- she's denied it's cancer, but she hasn't been more specific -- and the Grammys paid tribute to the 18-time winner by booking Yolanda Adams, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride, Florence Welch (from Florence and the Machine) to belt out a few of the legend's signature songs.

The brassy production number quickly devolved into a contest of "I can sing louder and sassier than you can!" with Aguilera winning handily. She finished "Natural Woman" with her trademark inflation of syllables ("You're the key to my peace of mi-i-i-i-i-i-i-ind!"), then tore into "Ain't No Way" with such power and precision everyone should forget her National Anthem goof at the Super Bowl. Hudson looked bored but sounded strong on "Respect," ending with a hand on a hip and an Everest-level run up the scale.

grammyaretha.jpgAfter the performance, Franklin herself appeared in a video, looking shockingly thin but regal in a feathery white gown. (Last month, she told "Access Hollywood" that after the surgery she was "down to a rockin' [size] 16!") She thanked supporters for card and flowers "and most importantly your prayers during my time of hospitalization," promising to attend the Grammys in person next year.

Chicagoans rack up early wins, losses at Grammys

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Tonight's telecast of the Grammy Awards will feature a lot of performances but few actual award presentations. The bulk of the 109 prizes were handed out this evening. Among the artists who wouldn't have their Chicago residency contested, here's who got some gold:

Chicago's queen of soul, Mavis Staples, won best Americana album for "You Are Not Alone," her acclaimed collaboration with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. "That was the shock of my life," Staples said as she accepted the award, overcome with emotion and receiving lengthy, loud applause. "This Grammy took along time coming. It was a long time, but it was worth the wait. You haven't seen the last with me. God is not through with me yet."

Who vs. who: The bouts at this year's Grammys

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grammytrophy.jpgThe Grammys are like a graduation ceremony. You only really care about what's going on if you're the one graduating, or a parent. Everyone else scans the notice in the newspaper, sends gift certificates and prays they aren't so closely related as to be invited to the inevitably dull, marathon ceremony.

The 53rd annual Grammy awards, airing at 7 p.m. Feb. 13 on CBS live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, will boast plenty of pomp and likely little circumstance. This year's telecast will contain few actual awards (last year, only nine of the 109 awarded trophies were handed out on-air) and a lot of contrived, collaborative performances, such as Usher singing with his mop-topped protégé, Justin Bieber, and Bieber duet pal Jaden Smith; a trio of 2010's biggest pop-R&B success stories, comprised of Bruno Mars, B.o.B. and Janelle Monae; a first-ever duet between rapper Drake and singer Rihanna; and an FCC-challenging (but no doubt dumbed-down) performance of the hit f-word song by Cee Lo Green, complete with actress Gwyneth Paltrow and ... the Muppets. Even Mick Jagger will join Raphael Saadiq and his band for the requisite obit reel.

Other scheduled performers during the show include the band Arcade Fire, Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Lady Gaga, Miranda Lambert, Muse and Katy Perry. (Rumors persist that a surprise Britney Spears performance is in the offing. There is nothing as yet to substantiate them.)

For those actually interested in the Recording Academy's stated mission "to honor artistic achievement ... without regard to album sales or chart position," there could be a few horse races in this year's Grammys -- if Eminem doesn't sweep all 10 of his nominations. He dominates the field, with Mars bearing seven nominations, and Jay-Z, Lady Antebellum and Lady Gaga each with six. (Full list of nominations is here, plus Chicago nominees.)

Here's a look at a few of the bouts set up for "music's biggest night" ...

Chicago's queen of soul Mavis Staples is nominated for a Grammy for best Americana album for "You Are Not Alone," the acclaimed record she made with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.

She leads the pack of Chicago contenders among this year's Grammy nominees, announced Wednesday night.

Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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