NEW YORK, MARCH 2 -- They praised the Lord and passed the adulation at the Grammy Awards tonight.

With the prominent exception of country singer K.T. Oslin (Best Country Vocal Performance, Female), who pronounced herself "a heathen" and said, "He didn't have a lot of time to personally supervise me," Grammarians thanked God along with their producers, managers and record labels.

The chorus of Thanksgiving began, appropriately, with the gospel awards. "Thank you, Jesus, number one," burbled Cece Winans (Best Soul Gospel Performance, Female). "He is wonderful; He is my life."

Jody Watley, Best New Artist, thanked God after her label MCA, and her manager, but before her video director and her attorney.

"First, giving thanks to the Almighty God," twittered an admittedly nervous Whitney Houston, who won the award for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.

"First of all I thank God and then Paul Simon," echoed Joseph Shabalala. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African a cappella group he founded -- which Simon featured in his "Graceland" album -- took Best Traditional Folk Recording.

Backstage at Radio City Music Hall, where winners were being hustled in and out of a room full of fidgeting reporters, the concerns were more secular. That is, would nominee and performer Michael Jackson come backstage and, if he did, would he say anything? No one knew for sure. "We all hope the same thing," said a publicist, fingers crossed. "We all pray to the same God."

In the meantime, the press contented itself with asking engineer Bruce Swedien -- who took the award for Best Engineered Recording, Nonclassical, for his work on Jackson's "Bad" album -- whether the singer was really as bizarre as people thought. "Absolutely not," Swedien retorted, describing Jackson as a "superb professional" who showed up two hours early for recording sessions to warm up with his vocal coach.

But how credible is a guy accessorizing his tuxedo with a red-sequined necktie? Swedien said he got his tie "from Michael."

The winners' backstage chat was more pragmatic, actually, than their acceptance speeches. Take Bill Medley, the former Righteous Brother whose duet with Jennifer Warnes was one of the hits hatched by the "Dirty Dancing" sound track. Onstage, he thanked God for "26 wonderful years" -- during which he won no Grammys. Backstage he announced a new album and plans to "jump back out in the fast lane and get to work, pay the rent."

Whitney Houston, in her third costume of the evening (it was black and rhinestoned), dimpled and said she hardly knew how to describe her reaction. "I can't tell you how I feel -- it's so emotional," she said, neatly plugging her current single.

Onstage, U2 guitarist The Edge had "a bit of a list" of thankees including Flannery O'Connor, Jimi Hendrix, Bishop Tutu, Walt Disney, "sumo wrestlers around the world" and John the Baptist. Asked backstage to explain why Americans loved the Grammy-winning album "The Joshua Tree," he was more succinct. "Because it's a brilliant record," he said.

"We don't see it as a peak in any way," lead singer Bono added more seriously. "It's a beginning." The band has written a dozen songs since ending its marathon U.S. tour, he said.

Presenters Judy Collins and Willie Colon mused that perhaps there should be a special category for the much-nominated and seldom-victorious. "I'm not happy, but I'm used to it," said Colon, whose "The Winners" album with Celia Cruz went unrewarded. "This is my sixth nomination. Maybe next time they'll come to their senses."

The early awards -- ethnic, classical, nonmusical, etc. -- ended with no word on whether Michael would drop by, but the Fat Boys did offer a quick rap. ("Hey, yo, you're lookin' sort of clammy/ I think he's nervous because he's on the Grammys.")

Jackson was a presence, nevertheless. When he began his performance, presenter Herbie Hancock, fielding press questions about jazz, practically bolted from the room. "I want to watch Michael Jackson," he pleaded. The hubbub in the room stilled. Songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, fresh from winning the Song of the Year award for "Somewhere Out There," bowed to the inevitable and suspended questions so that everyone could watch the monitors.

"We now resume all regular programming," announced the publicist, turning to Mann and Weil.

"Why are we here?" sighed Weil, impressed.

And Jackie Mason, who claimed to be distressed with his performance, felt a bit insecure, too. "I don't think they were so interested in an old Jew telling jokes," he shrugged. "They wanted to see people jumping, dancing, flying."

Speaking of which, Little Richard ("I am the originator!") appeared backstage to an ovation and cries of "You won, baby," after his naughty but exuberant on-camera grousing about having failed to win a Grammy in his 30-odd years of recording.

"I told the truth," he proclaimed. "You all know I'm known for telling the truth. It doesn't always work, but I tell it. Wooo!"

The "wooo," he explained, came from gospel singer Clara Ward. To whom would he bequeath it? "I don't have to; everybody took it," Little Richard pouted. "The Beatles. Now Michael's got it. And they're welcome to it."

In fact, he loved Jackson's performance. "I felt that," he sighed. "My big toe just shot up in my boot."