Jennifer Hudson performs "I Will Always Love You" as a tribute to the late Whitney Houston. (MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)

Nearly 40 million people turned out for Sunday’s Grammy Awards ceremony, to watch the music industry lay its heart at the feet of its fallen heroine Whitney Houston, who died dramatically the previous afternoon in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub, while the bands played their latest hits, LL Cool J prayed, Nicki Minaj got exorcised, and the cameras caught it all.

 That’s the recording academy trophy show’s second largest audience in its history, and its biggest crowd in nearly three decades.

 It’s also about two million more people than watched last year’s Academy Awards — which is traditionally the most watched trophy show of them all, by a healthy margin. In fact it’s a larger audience than four of the past six Oscarcasts, so this year’s host, Billy Crystal has got his work cut out for him.

 According to early Nielsen stats, the Grammy broadcast, which started at 8 p.m. ET and dragged on for three and a half hours, peaked at 9:30 p.m. when more than 43 million were tuned in.

Houston, 48, was found Saturday afternoon, unconscious and under water in the bathtub of her room at the Beverly Hilton hotel where she was getting ready to attend record industry mogul Clive Davis’s annual pre-Grammy party downstairs. Attempts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful and she was declared dead, leaving Grammy show producers and CBS scrambling to re-do the trophy show’s lineup to include references to the death of Houston, who was one of the industry’s most successful pop singers ever.

 And, if there’s one thing the American public has learned over the years, it’s that when a pop star dies suddenly on the eve of a big trophy show — even a faded pop star better known in recent years for her TV newsmag interviews about drug addiction and erratic behavior — Hollywood turns out and weeps in the aisles, with neon lights around its heart.

 Viewers were not disappointed.

LL Cool J pays tribute to singer Whitney Houston (Kevin Winter/GETTY IMAGES)

 “And so at least for me, for me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for a woman we loved — for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston," J continued. Stars in downtown Los Angeles’ Staples Center, including the likes of Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift, were seen with heads bowed as J thanked “our heavenly father... for sharing our sister Whitney with us.”

Then he introduced a clip of Houston singing at a Grammy show years ago. The Staples crowd gave her a standing ovation.

“Whitney — we will always love YOU,” J told deceased Houston. “And later tonight, we will remember you the best way we know how — with a song.”

 Turning on a dime, J told the sad-faced mob, “This night is about something much bigger than any one of us — This night is about music!”

 And we returned to the regularly scheduled orgy of trophy dispensing, acceptance speechifying, and new-tune performing. Jennifer Hudson gave the only performance at the Grammys of a Houston number — a dignified version of the Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” — which Houston made her signature and turned into one of the best selling tunes by a female artist in music history.

 Adele, the 23-year-old British soul singer who swept all six categories in which she’d been nominated  — including album of the year for her sophomore smash “21” — was supposed to have provided the Very Dramatic Moment at this year’s Grammycast.  

Instead, her very first public performance — “Rolling in the Deep” — since vocal-cord surgery months earlier, got totally upstaged by that video appearance of Houston, in her heyday, singing “I Will Always Love You” at a Grammy show years earlier.

  “This record is inspired by something that’s really normal – a rubbish relationship,” Adele sobbed as the picked up her Album of the Year trophy.

Deceased Whitney Houston wasn’t the only one to upstage Adele on what was to have been her big night. Nicki Minaj pitched in too, with a made-for-TV erotic exorcism, to strains of her new single, “Roman Holiday.”

 Minaj had walked the red carpet before the show accompanied by a man dressed to resemble the pope. Her on-stage performance – which, not coincidentally, did not start until after the end of primetime at 11:0 5 p.m. – began with a confession to a faux priest, followed by a filmed homage to “The Exorcist.”  After that, Minaj, decked out as Lady Gaga Lite in a long weedy gown and cheap peroxide-blonde wig, took the stage – which had been done up for the occasion in a stained-glass church-like way. As guys dressed to look like monks sang “O Come All Ye Faithful,” another guy dressed as an altar boy knelt in prayer between the legs of a female dancer, and a guy dressed as a bishop presided over the festivities, Minaj sing her new tune from a torture rack – giving Simon Cowell ideas for the next season of “The X Factor.”

Minaj broke free of her bonds just in time for her big finish: a levitation.

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