One of the weirdest Grammy traditions: the hosts. Looking over the Grammy hosts, it’s like a cheat sheet to pop-culture history over the past 50 years. Music’s biggest night didn’t get televised until 1971. But the Grammy Awards became a yearly TV party — high visibility, high stakes, high pressure. (And maybe sometimes even high hosts.) Some of these were pop stars, others were comedians, and one was the guy who played Frasier. Some rose to the occasion on a historic level; others soy-bombed. So let’s break it down: all the Grammy hosts of the TV era, ranked from worst to best.
One of the weirdest and wildest Grammy nights ever. Bob Dylan did his triumphant “Love Sick,” interrupted by a topless dancer with “Soy Bomb” painted on his chest. Ol’ Dirty Bastard jumped onstage to announce, “Wu-Tang is for the children!” And presiding over it all: Frasier himself. Kelsey Grammar looked bewildered and terrified by all this rock & roll mishegas going on around him. Oh, the disgust on his face as he introduced Hanson and was forced to utter the word, “MMMBop.”
One of the most explosive years in pop history: 1994. Grunge. Hip-Hop. Classic debuts from Biggie and Nas. Historic comebacks from Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. The death of Kurt Cobain. Who better to sum up all the drama of this pivotal music moment than: Paul Reiser! You know, the hubbie from the heart-warming sitcom Mad About You. So … why exactly? Not even he could explain. “I didn’t know who Green Day was,” he quipped beforehand. “I thought they were 12-year-old ecologists.” Ba-dum-bump. Not a good Grammy night. The show’s climax: Luther Vandross doing “Love the One You’re With” with Crosby, Stills and Nash.
The Grammy honchos were obsessed with putting non-musicians in charge for a long (and terrible) spell. It’s like they thought literally anyone was qualified, as long as it wasn’t a musician. For over 20 years, they hired one chat-show suit after another — between 1987 and 2012, the only artist to host was Queen Latifah. (Who’s way up on this list, obviously.) Jon Stewart, so great at The Daily Show, was just the wrong guy in the wrong place on Grammy night — he began the 2002 show with a long skit about airport security.
Some hosts do a bad job of hiding that they just don’t give a crap about the music. Shandling was on another level: He seemed to loathe it. The Larry Sanders star hosted four times, definitely not bringing his A game. The one time he rose to the occasion: apologizing to Frank Sinatra after CBS cut him off to go to a commercial, while he was in the middle of accepting a lifetime achievement award. Shandling said, “I’m sure Mr. Sinatra will get even by cutting this show off in another hour.”
Like all Nineties hosts, Rosie kept joking about how unhip and out of place she was on Grammy Night. But it was the wrong look — especially considering how Chris Rock was currently elevating the art of the award show at the VMAs. For some reason, she thought it was hilarious that Whitney Houston had just gotten busted for weed at a Hawaii airport. When Whitney came out to sing, Rosie quipped, “Our next performer is a big fan of the Doobies.”
Whoopi made the shrewd move of just being her sardonic self, and not trying to compete with the performers. (She’s also the only EGOT winner ever to host. Even if it’s a daytime Emmy) In 1992, the year of Right Said Fred, she began by announcing, “I’m too sexy for this show.”
Ellen’s no musician — but she’s always a fan, which counts for plenty. It was years before her ill-fated stint as a judge on American Idol, where she seemed to suffer pitchiness-related trauma week after week. In 1997 Ellen kicked off with an all-star ladies’ jam, featuring Bonnie Raitt, Chaka Khan, Fiona Apple, Sheila E., Shawn Colvin, and Meshell Ndegeocello. She came out just a few months later.
Country stud Kenny Rogers was at his silver-fox peak. He made his mark on Grammy history with an insane seven-minute duet with Donna Summer, doing a medley of nominees for Song of the Year: “I Will Survive,” “Reunited,” “What a Fool Believes,” and other Seventies nuggets. Donna looks miserable, but Kenny is having the time of his life. You simply have not experienced yacht-rock heaven until you’ve heard Kenny do his smoothest Michael McDonald imitation crooning the Doobie Brothers’ “Minute by Minute.”
Billy Crystal hosted one of the most astounding Grammy nights in February 1988. It was the night Michael Jackson did “Man in the Mirror,” the night Little Richard went off on a manic rant refusing to give out the Best New Artist award, the night U2 gave two of the funniest acceptance speeches ever. (When they won Album of the Year for The Joshua Tree, Bono used his speech to denounce The Village Voice’s music critics. Those were the days.) Billy was already an award-show hosting machine, all slick wisecracks and schmoozy grins. A few years later, he took over the Oscars and made it his personal showcase — you have to give Billy credit for turning Oscar Night into the nationwide TV ritual we’ve known ever since.
The ever-lovable Late Late Show host gave the ceremony some of his “Carpool Karaoke” magic. He staged a “Sweet Caroline” sing-along in the audience featuring Jennifer Lopez, John Legend, Jason DeRulo, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, and Neil himself. Not to mention Blue Ivy Carter, sneaking into the corner for a photobomb. He also rode the NYC subway with Sting and Shaggy — but it didn’t have the same synchronicity.
The Vegas crooner was the O.G., hosting the very first Grammy telecast in 1971. (Until then, they weren’t on TV, so America never got to see Jerry Lewis or Mort Sahl do the honors.) He was a dapper bridge between old-school show biz and the Seventies pop parade, which was why he was the perfect go-to guy for the first seven years — the forefather of the show. Andy could keep up with Paul Simon and John Lennon (who bizarrely tried to talk Andy into recording his deep-cut ballad “Bless You,” which would have sounded amazing.). He was there the night Helen Reddy made history with her acceptance speech for “I Am Woman.” She said, “I would like to thank God because she makes everything possible.”
The Queen was the first pop-star host in years — and she had so much regal presence, it’s a wonder they never begged her to come back. (Instead, the show limped on for years with no host at all.) She sang the Billy Strayhorn jazz ballad “Lush Life” and the Billie Holiday classic “Baby Get Lost,” from her standards collection, which was nominated for best jazz vocal album. (Though the best thing on it was her Al Green duet on “Simply Beautiful”). It ended with a very strange version of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” starring Bono, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, Slash, Steven Tyler, and Scott Weiland. Just in case you were wondering what it sound like to hear American idiot Billie Joe Armstrong sing the words “Jai guru deva om.”
Believe it or not, Mr. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” was bloody brilliant. He truly embraced the sheer pop ridiculousness of the whole event, and what would the Grammys be without a touch of the ridiculous? He hosted year after year. His all-time most surreal moment: the night he closed out the 1984 Grammy with a salute to the Sixties, which meant his rendition of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” (Damn, Denver was really feeling those “oh boy”’s.) Then it swerved into a duet with Joan Baez on “Blowin’ in the Wind.” One of the most authentically psychedelic things ever aired on live TV.
Rhymin’ Simon has always been a Grammy MVP — he had a classic moment in 1975, asking John Lennon and Art Garfunkel, “When are you guys getting back together?” He was a wonderfully salty host, especially when he griped about not winning any awards — “Last year Kenny Rogers hosted and he won, so I just assumed!” He ended with a moving (and unsentimental) Lennon tribute, just two months after his death: “We’ll miss his music, his humor, and his common sense. I’m sure we all share a sense of outrage.” He also did a bang-up version of “Late in the Evening,” becoming the first host in history to utter the line, “I went outside and smoked myself a jay.”
Big stoner-mom energy. Alicia really took to the role — it was a long-deserved do-over, 11 years after the infamous stunt when they made her open the Grammys by duetting with a Sinatra hologram. (“Sing it, Frank! Tell ‘em!”) Alicia came on dazed and rambling and full of charm, whether she was schmoozing with Michelle Obama or sitting at the piano to announce, “I wanna welcome you to Club Keys.” She did a spontaneous medley of her favorite songs — “I wish I wrote ‘em!” — including oldies like “Killing Me Softly” and “Unforgettable” as well as hits by Coldplay and Ella Mai.
The Greatest of All Time — an easy pick. It’s no exaggeration to say LL saved this show from the garbage pile of history. For years, the Grammys were the laughing stock of award shows, to the point where they couldn’t find a host — or anyone to watch. But LL really made it feel like music’s biggest night. His first night, in 2012, he had to deal with a tragedy — the sudden death of Whitney Houston, right before the ceremony. “There’s no way around this — we had a death in our family,” LL said, beginning the show with a moment of prayer for “our sister Whitney.” Talk about grace under pressure. His performances were a knockout — especially his tribute to the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch in 2013, when he did “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” with Chuck D, Tom Morello, and Travis Barker, shouting “MCA forever!” Mama said knock all other hosts out.