Awards, schmawards. The most compelling reason to watch the annual Grammy Awards ceremony is the parade of live performances by the music industry's incomparable greats and top-selling artists. Sure, there can be awkward tributes, forced collaborations and not-so-live performances. But NPR Music's staff has compiled a list of standout moments that capture the energy and unexpected greatness often found in Grammy's live telecast.
Miles Davis At The 25th Grammy Awards, 1983
Jazz and the Grammys: It's always been a troubled relationship full of awkward appreciation and uncomfortable "all-star" jams. Then some programming genius decides to put Miles Davis on the show during his 1982 comeback tour (he'd been in self-seclusion, nursing his addictions for a few years). It became one of the most uncomfortable jazz-on-TV moments of all time — and we jazz fans have suffered through many.
Davis' comeback was something to celebrate, and he had a great band, but this was not the usual Grammy-ceremony music for the masses. You can see the audience's discomfort for yourself in this clip. At approximately 1:34, the camera shows Davis fidgeting with his synthesizer while playing trumpet blasts. In the background, the audience fidgets in its seats, most likely thinking to themselves, "Uh, this is Miles Davis. I'm supposed to like him, but, uh, where is the melody? And why is that saxophone player wearing a headband?"
But at least jazz got a moment at the Grammys. —Felix Contreras
Aretha Franklin Performs 'Nessum Dorma' At The 40th Grammy Awards, 1998
Some classical purists can't abide this performance, and to them I say, "Phooey!" From the 1998 Grammys, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, steps in for Luciano Pavarotti, the King of the high Cs, putting her own soul-infused spin on the Puccini aria "Nessun Dorma." There's an improvisatory feel, and the Italian is clunky at best, but she makes it her own. The crown jewels in the performance are her sweet, soaring final phrases on the word "vincero." Just when you think she's finished, she riffs off the word, adding flourishes even higher in her inimitable style. A goose-bump-inducing performance every time. Brava, Aretha! She stole the show. —Tom Huizenga
Barbra Streisand And Neil Diamond Perform 'You Don't Bring Me Flowers' At The 22nd Grammy Awards, 1980
Barbra Streisand emerged on stage at the Grammy Awards in 1980 without introduction, and the audience went wild. The unannounced duet with Neil Diamond for a version of their hit "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" stole the show and earned the duo an inclusion on practically every live-music highlight reel compiled in the past three decades. Streisand's notorious bouts of stage fright had kept her from singing at many live televised events, but you wouldn't know it from this show. With Diamond's understated compassion and Streisand's tempered emoting, the two pros demonstrate that you don't need a fog machine or back-up dancers to make a compelling live performance. —Amy Schriefer
Bob Dylan Performs 'Love Sick' At The 40th Grammy Awards, 1998
For those who saw it at the time, the "Soy Bomb" guy was just a weird non sequitur moment where we all sort of asked ourselves, "Did that just happen?" and eventually shrugged it off. Surrounded by his band, Bob Dylan was mid-verse when that rogue shirtless dancer rushed into the foreground with "Soy Bomb" painted in large letters across his chest. What was so great about the whole thing was the way Dylan disregarded the guy and continued playing that killer version of "Love Sick" without skipping a beat. Watching at home on TV, many weren't quite sure what to make of it until security realized that it wasn't part of the performance and escorted him off the stage. But, really, all we could do was laugh; the stunt had breathed some life into the oft-dull Grammys, even it only for 30 seconds. The clip here captures the Soy Bomb moment, but watch the edited version of the entire performance of "Love Sick" here. —Michael Katzif
Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Steven Van Zandt & Dave Grohl Perform 'London Calling' At The 45th Grammy Awards, 2003
The four guitar-slinging singers have never been shy about performing for a worthy cause, sharing stages with fellow icons or paying tribute to their favorite musicians. So what's so special about this 2003 tribute to the then-recently departed Clash frontman Joe Strummer, featuring Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and Steven Van Zandt? Just the sheer, spittle-soaked muscle of it — a welcome infusion of raw, vein-bursting urgency in an awards show that's not exactly a hotbed of raw, vein-bursting urgency. —Stephen Thompson