It was a delicate balance. The show started off with Bruce Springsteen, complete with a string section, performing his new song "We Take Care of Our Own," a rousing song that references the troubles of the nation.
But soon after, a somber LL Cool J, the show's host, appeared in black, and told the audience: "There is no way around this. We've had a death in our family."
He then led the audience in prayer to "our fallen sister, Whitney Houston.
"Heavenly father, we thank you for sharing our sister Whitney with us," he said, as celebrities like Lady Gaga and Miranda Lambert bowed their heads in prayer. "Though she is gone too soon, we remain truly blessed to have been touched by her beautiful spirit."
He introduced a clip of a glowing Houston singing one of her best-known songs, "I Will Always Love You." LL Cool said afterward: "Whitney, we will always love you."
In his performance of "Runaway Baby," Bruno Mars also mentioned the death: "Tonight we're celebrating. Tonight we're celebrating the beautiful Miss Whitney Houston."
A tribute to Houston featuring Jennifer Hudson was to take place during the main ceremony.
Houston died on the eve of the Grammys at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where she was preparing to attend a pre-Grammy party. Before the death of one of pop music's most important figures, the pre-Grammy buzz focused on whether Adele -- 2011's top-selling artist and set to make her first public performance on the show since having vocal cord surgery -- would be the queen of the Grammys. Although Kanye West led all nominees with seven and Bruno Mars and the Foo Fighters tied Adele with six nominations, she was favored to sweep all of her categories.
Still, while Houston's death cast a shadow over the night's winners, it did not obscure them. The Foo Fighters emerged as big winners, capturing five of the six categories they were nominated in, and they still had a chance to win the evening's top award, album of the year.
Frontman Dave Grohl noted that the band made their album, "Wasting Light," in their garage.
"To me this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of making music is what's most important. Singing into a microphone, learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that's the most important thing for people to do," he said as the band accepted their best rock performance trophy for "Walk." "It's not about being perfect. It's not about sounding absolutely correct. It's not about what goes on in a computer. It's about what goes on in here (your heart) and what goes on here (your head). ... Long live rock `n' roll!"
Kanye West, who was the top nominee with seven, had won four by the midway point in the show; he was not present.
Adele gave a brief speech which in part referenced the vocal ailment that forced her to cancel her tour and keep a low profile for much of last year, despite her blockbuster success.
"I can't believe I'm getting emotional already," she said. "And seeing as it's a vocal performance, I need to thank my doctors, I suppose, who brought my voice back."
The Grammys did their best to keep a tone that balanced the many moods of the night: The Foo Fighters performed in a tent outside the Staples Center, where the awards were being held, amid a throng of bouncing fans; but moments earlier, Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt paid tribute to Etta James, the legend who died last month.
There was also a tribute to the recently reunited Beach Boys that featured Maroon 5, Foster the People and Mike Love, Al Jardine and Brian Wilson, the three remaining members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band, all pitch-perfect as they brought the groups California rock sound and harmonies back to life.
And in a noteworthy occurrence, Rihanna and Brown appeared at the same awards show since his attack on her three years ago -- also on the eve of the Grammys -- forced both to drop out of the show and led to an assault conviction for Brown. It almost derailed his career, but 2011 marked a huge comeback, and he was rewarded with a Grammy performance slot on Sunday night's CBS broadcast that focused more on his stunning dance moves than his singing (he appeared to lip-synch his entire performance).
Rihanna, who performed with Coldplay later, is a multiple nominee and up for album of the year. She is competing with Adele's "21," Mars' "Doo-Woops & Hooligans," the Foo Fighters' "Wasting Light" and Lady Gaga's "Born This Way."
Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" is nominated for record and song of the year. Both categories also include Bon Iver's "Holocene," Mumford & Sons "The Cave," and Mars' "Grenade." Katy Perry's "Firework" is up for record of the year but instead of that song, West's "All of the Lights" takes the remaining position in the song of the year category.
The ceremony also marks the first since a major overhaul of the categories last year: They were trimmed from 109 to 78.