GRAMMYS, NOT TEARS FOR CLAPTON 'Beauty and the Beast' music also wins big for songwriters, vocalists

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Several years ago, Eric Clapton explained his sense of the blues to an interviewer by saying, "Every day, I find something I'm going to suffer about."

He must have had the night off last night, however, because he spent most of the evening collecting Grammys at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. With wins for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year, Male Pop Vocal, Male Rock Vocal and Best Rock Song, he was such an unstoppable force that Garry Shandling, who hosted the Grammys broadcast, quipped early on, "If you're up against Eric Clapton in any of the other categories, I'd go home now."

Clapton, for his part, suffered only from extreme modesty. Upon receiving his first award of the evening, he shyly insisted, "I don't think I deserved to win this -- there were better songs -- but I'm very grateful." Later, when "Tears in Heaven" won the Song of the Year trophy, Clapton demurred again. "I think the Vanessa Williams song should have got it, because it kept us out of No. 1 for two months," he said. "Still, we're happy."

By the time he got up to accept the Album of the Year Grammy, he almost blushed when he looked out and saw the crowd on its feet. Yet even then, he was the embodiment of humility. "I was convinced this wasn't worth releasing," he said of "Unplugged," his winning album. "I agreed for it to come out in a limited edition, and it sold a few, and sold a few, and . . . it really blows my mind."

Nor was his the only mind blown by the end of this 35th annual Grammy Awards presentation. Although the broadcast was, in many ways, typical of Grammy Show overkill -- lavish production numbers, corny jokes, awkward ad-libs and incongruous combinations -- the awards winners were anything but the usual Grammy fare.

Take the Best New Artist category, for example. Where most music biz cynics (this writer included) expected the award to go to the massively successful (but artistically negligible) Billy Ray Cyrus, the voters went for rappers Arrested Development -- the group that most deserved to win. Could it be that the Grammy voters are finally beginning to get hip?

Could be. After all, the classy and eclectic k. d. lang beat out the more prosaic Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Annie Lennox and Vanessa Williams in the Pop Vocal, Female, category. Tom Waits, whose critically acclaimed songs have seemed too quirky and idiosyncratic for the mass audience, were just right for Grammy voters, earning him the Alternative Music award. Even the Rhythm and Blues Instrumental category showed unexpected class by honoring the late Miles Davis for "Doo Bop."

A couple awards actually seemed a little too adventurous. For instance, although the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away" is certainly an admirable piece of work, you have to wonder in what way this rap-flavored work qualifies as hard rock, where it triumphed at the Grammys. Likewise, Nine Inch Nails' stunningly aggressive "Wish" is surely a terrific single, but is it heavy metal? Most fans wouldn't think so, but that was the Grammy it won.

Still, the quirks were few and far between. Mostly, what we saw were the best and the brightest getting their just desserts. Boyz II Men, whose chart-topping "End of the Road" was named Best Rhythm and Blues Vocal, Duo or Group (as well as R&B; Song), translated its commercial success into Grammy gold. So did rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot, who will likely go down in history as the first man to win a Grammy for a song about big butts.

Mary-Chapin Carpenter had particular reason to feel lucky, especially after "I Feel Lucky" was named the year's best in Country Vocals, Female. But her luck ran out when it came to the Country Song award, which went instead to Vince Gill for "I Still Believe in You." Then again, Gill was on quite a roll, besting mega-star Garth Brooks for the prestigious Country Vocal, Male award.

Brooks was by no means the biggest loser among the country contenders, however. Although Billy Ray Cyrus was up for four Grammys, he left the Shrine Arena empty handed. Nor did the best-selling Brooks and Dunn boot-scoot their way on stage; the Grammy they were up for (Country Performance by a Duo or Group) went to Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers.

It was a mixed bag for the "Beauty and the Beast" crew. On the one hand, the movie's music was another casualty of the Clapton steamroller, losing out in all the major categories, though Peabo Bryson and Celine Dion's rendition of the film's title tune did take the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal, Duo or Group.

But "Beauty" beat the bluesman in the soundtrack categories, as Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman won both Best Song and Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or Television. The soundtrack album was also named the Best Children's Album, and a version of the score performed by the Nurenberg Symphony Orchestra was Best Pop Instrumental.

As usual, dead guys did remarkably well. In addition to Davis' win in the R&B; Instrumental category, Leonard Bernstein won two posthumous Grammys, including Best Classical Album for a recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan won for Contemporary Blues and Rock Instrumental.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this year's Grammys, though, was that the show was a relatively painless experience for the viewers. True, there were the usual interminable tribute sequences, including yet another chorus of praises to Michael Jackson (are we sick of hearing how tortured he is yet?).

But the musical performances were mostly worth watching, from Peter Gabriel's show-opening spectacular, a rendition of "Steam" that was more lavishly presented than most MTV videos, to Clapton's eloquently understated rendition of "Tears in Heaven."

But the most amazing musical moment belonged to the Red HotChili Peppers, who brought out George Clinton and a host of Parliament-Funkadelic extras (including a diapered Gary Shider) to funk up "Give It Away." By the time they got to an interpolated chorus of "One Nation Under a Groove," it seemed as if even the normally staid Grammy crowd was willing to give up the funk.

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