15 Great Grammy Tribute Performances - Rolling Stone
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15 Great Grammy Tribute Performances

From Springsteen singing Strummer to Bruno Mars honoring Bob Marley, revisit classic performances from past ceremonies

Best Grammy Tributes; Springsteen; Costello

Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello perform "London Calling" in tribute to the late Joe Strummer.


While celebrating current pop achievements is a huge part of the Grammy mission, the ceremonies themselves always devote plenty of time to honoring past glories. Even by Grammys standards, the 2016 show will be unusually tribute-heavy, with various artists memorializing the many icons we’ve lost during the past year. Lady Gaga will pay tribute to David Bowie with a medley of the Starman’s songs in a segment directed by Nile Rodgers; late Motörhead leader Lemmy Kilmister will get a suitably loud sendoff from the Hollywood Vampires; Gary Clark Jr. will lead a bluesy farewell to B.B. King; and the surviving Eagles will team with Jackson Browne for what’s sure to be a stirring Glenn Frey homage. 

In anticipation of these performances, we look back at some of the most memorable Grammy tributes from years past.

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to Joe Strummer (2003)

With Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and Steven Van Zandt

A song as caustic as “London Calling,” with its apocalyptic images of nuclear meltdown, police brutality and – gasp! – the demise of Beatlemania, hardly seems appropriate fodder for an event as staid and slick as the Grammys. Then again, Joe Strummer, the Clash leader who had passed away just months prior to the 45th awards show, was hardly your average punk; for evidence of that look no further than the fab four — Bruce Springsteen, E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, Elvis Costello and Dave Grohl — who stepped up to lead this tribute. The murderers’ row of musicians stood in a straight line at the front of the stage, bearing down hard on their guitars as they took turns snarling Strummer’s desperate lyrics. As a capper, Strummer was also honored with an actual Grammy that night, when the Clash documentary Westway to the World nabbed the Best Long Form Music Video award.

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to the Beatles (2004)

With Sting, Dave Matthews, Pharrell Williams and Vince Gill

One night before the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ historic Ed Sullivan Show debut, the Grammys decided to mark the occasion with a collection of musicians that just gets weirder with time. Where else would you see one of the Neptunes, a CMT mainstay, the DMB frontman, and a worldbeat tantric sex god rocking out together? It’s loose — so loose that Dave Matthews flubs the lyric and inexplicably sings “I saw her dancing there” on the chorus. While it occasionally ventures into karaoke territory, the performance charmingly captures the fun and exuberance of the moptop-era Fab Four. 

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to Warren Zevon (2004)

With Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam and Billy Bob Thornton

Zevon meticulously planned his farewell after he was diagnosed with an inoperable form of lung cancer in 2002. Given just months to live, he gathered his favorite musicians in the studio to record what would be his last songs. Don Henley, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty were just a few of the artists who contributed to the sessions, which were filmed for a documentary.

The resulting album, The Wind, was released on August 26th, 2003, just two weeks before he succumbed to his illness. The work posthumously earned him five Grammy nominations, including Song of the Year for the closing ballad, "Keep Me in Your Heart." A recording of the song was played during the ceremony, with live vocal backing from Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam and Billy Bob Thornton — all of whom worked on the album.

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to Janis Joplin (2005)

With Joss Stone and Melissa Etheridge

Intended to mark the 35th anniversary of Janis Joplin’s tragic overdose, the fiery duet is better remembered as Melissa Etheridge’s comeback following her excruciating treatment for breast cancer. Joss Stone primed the crowd with an impassioned “Cry Baby” before Etheridge — bald from chemotherapy — took the stage. Her entrance brought the usually staid Grammy audience to rapturous applause. Having recently endured a lumpectomy, she turned “Piece of My Heart” into an anthem for breast-cancer survivors around the world.

“It was an opportunity for me to prove to myself that I could get back on the stage,” Etheridge later said of the performance. “This symptom of cancer that I had was not going to stop me, kill me, change me. I was actually going to be better after this and that the chemotherapy that was just sucking the life force out of me wasn’t going to keep me down.”

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to Sly Stone (2006)

With Joss Stone, Van Hunt, John Legend, Fantasia, Devin Lima, Maroon 5, Ciara, Will.i.am, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Robert Randolph and Sly Stone

Much like the Family Stone band, the tribute to Sly at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards was a multicultural affair, with an array of artists pairing up to pay respect to the legendary funk soul brother. There was Joss Stone, John Legend and Van Hunt doing the smooth jam "Family Affair," Maroon 5 and Ciara grooving to "Everyday People," and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Joe Perry rocking out on "I Want to Take You Higher." But the real treat was when Tyler, arm resting on Perry's shoulder, yelled, "Hey Sly, let's do it like we used to do it!" At which point the long reclusive Stone (who had earlier sent Grammy producers into a panic after missing a few rehearsals) ambled onstage in a silver lamé jacket, Dior shades and a truly wicked white Mohawk to join the ensemble, which included members of the Family Stone, for "Dance to the Music." The appearance marked Sly's first live performance in almost two decades. But after just two minutes of contributing some keyboard and vocals, he gave a small wave and walked off, as the band played on.

Best Grammy Tributes

Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Tribute to Wilson Pickett (2006)

With Bruce Springsteen, Sam Moore, Irma Thomas, the Edge, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John and Elvis Costello

“This is for the Wicked Pickett!” Bruce Springsteen proclaimed from the stage as an all-star band prowled their way through “In the Midnight Hour.” It was a nickname well-earned for the R&B great, whose hard living and drug abuse contributed to his fatal heart attack just a few weeks before on January 19th. The Boss had shared the stage with Pickett at his own 1999 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, so it seemed only fair that he return the favor by paying tribute to his fallen idol.

He had help from another soul man — Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, Pickett’s one-time Atlantic Records labelmates. Along with New Orleans’ soul queen Irma Thomas, the three concluded the 48th Grammy Awards by trading lines on Pickett’s biggest smash. 

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to Bo Diddley (2009)

With B.B. King, John Mayer, Buddy Guy and Keith Urban

Young bucks and old hands banded together during the 51st Grammy Awards to pay their respects to rock's rhythm architect Bo Diddley, who had died the previous June. Eighty-three-year-old King tore off searing licks on his trusty six-string Lucille before handing it over to John Mayer, whose deliciously nasty solo made up for his velvety voice. Buddy Guy and Keith Urban rounded out the quartet of guitarists, who riffed for a too-short two minutes.

After the set, Urban recalled that he had once opened for Diddley early on in his career.  "After his show, we were packing up backstage, and in walks Bo and he says, 'Hey, boy, was that you just pickin' on that there guitar?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Mmm, you're a good guitar player, boy,' and then he just nodded and walked away … So it was a full circle moment for me."

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to the Four Tops (2009)

With Jamie Foxx, Ne-Yo, Smokey Robinson and Abdul "Duke" Fakir

The 51st Grammy Awards were bittersweet for Abdul "Duke" Fakir, the sole surviving member of the Four Tops. The Motown quartet was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, which Fakir accepted on behalf of his late bandmates. Despite 20 Top 40 hits and a career spanning more than six decades, Grammy recognition was the only honor that had remained elusive for the group. "To me, this is greater than one Grammy, [or] two or three," he said before the ceremony. "It says for your life … you've done well. I just wish the guys were here to accept that."

To perform a medley of the Tops' biggest hits, Fakir enlisted the help of fellow Motown cohort Smokey Robinson, as well as (relative) R&B newbies Jamie Foxx and Ne-Yo. The new foursome did the originals proud, with Fakir sounding as strong and pure as he did in his Sixties prime.

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to Solomon Burke (2011)

With Mick Jagger and Raphael Saadiq

Amazingly, Mick Jagger's appearance for the Solomon Burke tribute at the 53rd awards show marked his first ever Grammys performance. Not surprisingly, the Stones singer killed it — strutting, shimmying, gyrating, pointing and prowling his way across the stage and down the catwalk. "Everybody having a good time?" he asked the crowd halfway through the performance. Whatever their feelings, it was clear that the skinny, rubber-limbed dude in the shiny green coat was having the time of his life.

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to Aretha Franklin (2011)

With Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride, Florence Welch and Yolanda Adams

Recently ill, Aretha Franklin didn't attend the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards in person. But she was certainly there in spirit, as the show opened with an incredible musical "get-well card" to the Queen of Soul. The five performers kicked off their Aretha mini-set with a full-cast run-through of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," with Aguilera hitting some impressively stratospheric high notes. The women then broke off for individual spotlight songs, a highlight of which was Hudson's appropriately sassy take on "Respect." Hudson returned to the Grammy stage the following year to deliver a considerably more somber tribute, singing an emotional "I Will Always Love You" for Whitney Houston just one day after the singer was found dead in her room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where she had been scheduled to attend a pre-Grammy bash.

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to the Beach Boys (2012)

With Maroon 5, Foster the People and the Beach Boys

Sure, Maroon 5 (who performed "Surfer Girl") are avowed pop stars, and Foster the People ("Wouldn't It Be Nice") were having a moment in 2012. Nevertheless, the Beach Boys tribute at the 54th awards show didn't truly take off until the actual Boys — including founding members Al Jardine, famously lawsuit-happy Mike Love and, for the first time in many years, Brian Wilson — appeared onstage together to belt out "Good Vibrations" in all its vocal-harmony drenched, electro-theremin-whirring glory. Unsurprisingly, the reunited group's subsequent 50th anniversary tour ended in shambles. But for at least one moment on the Grammy stage, the Beach Boys did, to quote Ryan Seacrest's introduction to their performance, "spread some good vibrations as only they can do it."

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to Etta James (2012)

Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys

Whitney Houston was, understandably, on the mind of every artist inside the Staples Center on the night of the 54th awards show. But as Bonnie Raitt stated at the beginning of her performance with Alicia Keys, "We also love another of the great ladies of music who we lost this year — the one and only Etta James." The two then unspooled a sultry version of one of James' signature tunes, "A Sunday Kind of Love." And, clearly, love was all around: "We love you, Etta. We love you, Whitney. We'll never forget you," the two said from the stage afterwards.

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to Levon Helm (2013)

With Elton John, Zac Brown, Brittany Howard, Mumford & Sons, Mavis Staples and T Bone Burnett

The diverse clutch of artists that gathered onstage at the 55th awards show to pay tribute to late Band drummer and sometime singer Levon Helm — as well as other musicians that passed that year — was an apt reflection of the ridiculously broad stylistic reach and wide-ranging influence of the Canadian-American outfit. From a British singer-songwriter piano great (Elton John) to a group of young Brits who often sound like old-timey Americans (Mumford & Sons), a black American r&b and gospel legend (Mavis Staples) to a new-school country star (Zac Brown), the stage was packed with talent that spanned generations and genres. The whole thing was rounded out by producer and musician T Bone Burnett on acoustic guitar and Alabama Shakes vocalist Brittany Howard, the latter of whom stole the show with a powerhouse performance on the song's fourth verse.

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to Bob Marley (2013)

With Bruno Mars, Sting, Rihanna, Ziggy Marley and Damian Marley

The Bob Marley tribute at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards started out conspicuously, well, Marley-less, with pop-soul revivalist Bruno Mars offering up an energetic performance of his Police-sounding hit, “Locked Out of Heaven.” Halfway through, Mars was joined by the head Police man himself, Sting, who then took over the reins for a run-through of his own “Walking on the Moon” — which at least sounds like a reggae song. Things finally got appropriately Marley-fied for the grand finale, with Bob’s sons Ziggy and Damian, along with island girl Rihanna, joining the crew for a euphoric “Could You Be Loved,” the entire stage bathed in red, green and yellow lights.

Best Grammy Tributes

Tribute to Phil Everly (2014)

With Billie Joe Armstrong and Miranda Lambert

The Everly Brothers’ close vocal harmonies were a crucial ingredient in early rock and roll. Their angelic blend influenced everyone from the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Simon & Garfunkel, all the way through Billie Joe Armstrong. The Green Day front man recorded a cover album, Foreverly, with Norah Jones just prior to Phil Everly’s death on January 3rd, 2014. At the 56th Grammys a month later, he performed an intimate acoustic duet alongside country star Miranda Lambert. Although the two were an unlikely pairing, their voices weaved together flawlessly on the Everlys’ 1960 tune “When Will I Be Loved.”

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