Billie Eilish was the big Grammy winner as she became the first woman ever to sweep all four major categories on Sunday night in Los Angeles — a ceremony that took a mournful turn as a memorial for Kobe Bryant, the former Los Angeles Laker and Lower Merion High School basketball great who died in a helicopter crash in California earlier in the day.
The 18-year-old goth pop star won a total of six awards, including best new artist, best song and record of the year for “Bad Guy," and album of the year for her debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? “Can I just say Arianna deserves this?" she asked in her acceptance, referring to fellow nominee Ariana Grande.
Earlier in the evening, Eilish turned in a tender performance accompanied by her brother, Finneas, with both appearing to be dressed in their pajamas. Finneas, whose last name, like hers, is O’Connell, also won non-classical producer of the year. “We stand up here confused, and grateful,” he said, accepting the best album trophy with his sister.
Lizzo, the rapper and singer whose irrepressible energy and body positivity made her a star, was an early winner.
The artist born Melissa Jefferson, the top nomination-getter with eight, won awards for urban contemporary album for Cuz I Love You, traditional R&B performance for “Jerome,” and pop solo performance for “Truth Hurts.” She opened the telecast, beginning her medley by shouting out: “Tonight is for Kobe!”
The death of Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, along with seven others, cast a pall over the awards, which were telecast on CBS from the Staples Center, the L.A. arena that’s the home of the Lakers. Two of Bryant’s retired jerseys, 8 and 24, hang from the rafters.
Alicia Keys, who superbly hosted the awards for the second year in a row, followed Lizzo on stage at the start of the show. She immediately addressed the mournful mood, which was eerily reminiscent of the 2012 Grammy ceremony that immediately followed the death of Whitney Houston at age 48.
“We’re all feeling crazy sadness right now,” Keys said. “Earlier today, Los Angeles, America, and the whole wide world lost a hero. We’re literally standing here heartbroken in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
Keys then brought out Philadelphia vocal trio Boyz II Men to sing “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” from their 1991 album Cooleyhighharmony.
Boyz II Men later performed on the song “Earfquake,” with blond-wigged rapper Tyler the Creator and singer Charlie Wilson. Tyler — last name Okonma — later won best rap album for Igor, bringing his mother onstage for the acceptance speech while beating out competitors that included Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill’s Championships.
The tragedy of Bryant’s death overshadowed the extraordinary scandal that has rocked the Recording Academy, which awards the Grammys. On Jan. 15, president and CEO Deborah Dugan was ousted by the organization’s board, which said she had created a “toxic and intolerable” environment.
Dugan has since filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission claiming, among other explosive charges, that the Grammy nomination process is manipulated behind the scenes and is “ripe with corruption.” The Academy has called Dugan’s accusation “categorically false.”
Adding to that, on Saturday night at the pre-Grammy party hosted by Clive Davis, Sean “Diddy” Combs gave a scathing speech in which he said that “truth be told, hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. ... For years, we’ve allowed institutions that never had our best interests at heart to judge us, and that stops right now.”
Keys alluded to the drama indirectly in a solo piano interlude. “It’s been a helluva week,” she said. “Real talk. There’s a lot going on.” She went on to advocate for inclusivity. “We want to be respected and safe in our diversity.”
She also performed a version of Scottish songwriter Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Love,” with new lyrics that shouted out nominees and included political commentary. “Commander in chief impeached / Let’s bring on Cardi B,” she sang playfully, then added, “When good people do nothing, that’s when the bad guys win.”
Among nominated Philadelphians, classical composer Jennifer Higdon was a winner. Higdon, who teaches at the Curtis Institute, was on her way home from giving a Sunday talk at the Opera Company of Philadelphia when she found out she won in the classical composition category for Higdon: Harp Concerto, recorded by the Rochester Philharmonic.
“At which point I started jumping up and down on Spruce Street yelling, ‘I won a Grammy!’ ” she said on Sunday night. “A lot of people were looking at me like I was mad. I think I’m in shock, to be honest. It’s always a shock. I probably won’t sleep for two days.
It was Higdon’s third Grammy win out of six nominations. She last won in 2018 for her Viola Concerto in the same category.
Other acts with Philadelphia connections picked up Grammys in a pre-telecast ceremony, during which most of the 84 awards are given out. They included Philadelphia movie star Bradley Cooper who, along with Lady Gaga, won for best compilation soundtrack for visual media for A Star Is Born.
Randy Brecker, the jazz trumpeter raised in Cheltenham, won for best improvised solo for “Sozinho,” from Rocks, his album with the Hamburg Radio Jazz Orchestra.
The show overshot its 3½ hour running time.
Highlights included country comeback queen Tanya Tucker, who won two awards, singing “Bring My Flowers Now” accompanied by Brandi Carlile on piano. The duo then announced that Dave Chappelle had won best comedy album for Sticks and Stones.
Bluesman Gary Clark Jr., who picked up three awards earlier in the day for his album This Land, delivered a ripping version of the proud anti-racist title cut backed by Philadelphia’s The Roots.
There were several production numbers that mashed up multiple performers. Some, like the Aerosmith-Run-DMC “Walk This Way,” sewed up time that would have been better given to more currently relevant performers.
A tribute to rapper Nipsey Hussle, who was shot to death in April, was moving. It featured Mill and was anchored by John Legend at the piano. When Hussle won an award later, Legend said, “We’ve seen so much tragedy this year — and today. Let’s love each other, and hold each other tight.”