"We've had a death in our family," said LL Cool J, the show's host. "For me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for a woman that we love, for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston."
The Bay Shore native offered a prayer for Houston before starting the show, saying, "Although she is gone too soon, we remain truly blessed to have been touched by her beautiful spirit and to have her lasting legacy of music to cherish and share forever."
It was the first of several tributes to Houston, both onstage and off. The evening reached an emotional crescendo when Jennifer Hudson delivered a stunning version of "I Will Always Love You," accompanied only by piano to showcase her delivery and her change of the lyrics to "Whitney, we will always, we will always love you."
Earlier on stage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Rihanna demanded, "Make some noise for Whitney!" during her hit "We Found Love." "Tonight we're celebrating the beautiful Whitney Houston," declared Bruno Mars. "We love Whitney Houston," said Alicia Keys, before she and Bonnie Raitt paid tribute to the late Etta James.
Kelly Price, who sang with Houston Thursday night at a party celebrating the gospel singer's Grammy nominations, said her friend would have wanted an upbeat remembrance of her career. "She would want it to be celebratory and to be about the music," Price said on the red carpet before the event. "She loved what she did."
Producer Jimmy Jam said musicians would mark Houston's death like she was a member of their families. "You gather your family together, you tell stories, you laugh a little bit, you cry a little bit -- a little bit of mourning, a little bit of celebrating," he said.
As they walked the red carpet, all sorts of stars told their Houston stories.
"We lost our hero," Kelly Rowland said. "I wouldn't be standing here if it wasn't for her. . . . I hope she knew how much she impacted not just the music industry but the world with her gift."
The memories of Houston were heartfelt across the musical spectrum.
"Mine is only one of the millions of hearts broken over the death of Whitney Houston," said Dolly Parton, who wrote the song "I Will Always Love You," which Houston sang in the film "The Bodyguard."
Before dedicating "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" to Houston, Elton John told the crowd at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas Saturday night, "All I want to talk about is her music. . . . Thank you for giving us your talent, and one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard."
Liza Minnelli said, "My friend Whitney sang better than anyone. She was magnificent. She gave us everything she had. May she rest in peace and may we let her memory rest in peace."
Mitch Winehouse, father of the late Amy Winehouse, tried to put Houston's death in context. "We shouldn't be here -- our darling daughter should be here," Winehouse said, as he and his wife, Janis, joined Tony Bennett onstage to accept the award for best pop duo performance. "Long live Whitney Houston. Long live Amy Winehouse. Long live Etta James. What can I say, there's a beautiful golden band in heaven." With Frank Lovece