With no shortage of the U.S. music industry’s A-list under one roof, the Grammys have spent a lot of time arranging mash-ups, duets, team-ups, collaborations and medleys. Here’s 20 of the most unlikely, ranging from the inspired to the WTF.
Thomas Dolby, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and Howard Jones, “Synthesizer Showdown” (1985)
The establishment was still grappling with the rise of the synthesizer in the mid-Eighties, but the showcase of electronic instruments at the 1985 Grammys – which featured a white-tuxedoed Thomas Dolby, fusion-friendly Herbie Hancock and future perennial Grammy collaborator Stevie Wonder – started the path toward NARAS’ more staid members at least regarding technology with less suspicion. “I don’t think anybody had ever done anything like that before – centered around keyboards, centered around new technology, drum machines and all that,” Jones told Yahoo! Music last year. “That was quite controversial at that time. That’s the thing: As an electronic musician, people didn’t really understand how it was done, what you were doing or whether you were doing anything.”
Dion, Lou Reed, David Johansen and Ruben Blades, “Teenager in Love” (1988)
Lou Reed, David Johansen and Ruben Blades helped turn a late-Eighties Grammy stage into a 1950s New York City street corner when they backed up Dion on his sweetly pining classic “Teenager In Love.” While the spectacle of agit-pop pioneers getting down with simple adolescent longing might have seemed out of place, Reed’s induction of Dion into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame explained the eternal cool of the master of “Bronx Soul”: “He had the chops and he practically invented the attitude,” he said at the 1989 ceremony. “After all, who could be hipper than Dion?'”
Elton John and Backstreet Boys, “Philadelphia Freedom” (2000)
Not quite the mash-up that arose from similarly incongruous pairings, the Backstreet Boys’ cameo on “Philadelphia Freedom” essentially consisted of them crowding around Elton John’s piano and offering backing vocals and supportive hand gestures. Elton, however, was appreciative of the “I Want It That Way” hitmakers: “I’ve slept with all the boy bands. I know them all,” he quipped backstage after taking time to praise the vocal prowess of A.J., Howie, Nick, Brian and Kevin.
Eminem and Elton John, “Stan” (2001)
Activist groups gathered outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles on the eve of the 2001 Grammy Awards, carrying signs with slogans like “Award Music, Not Hate.” They were stirred to opposition by the gay slurs and references to violence against women on Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, which was up for Album of the Year. Hoping to ease tensions, Recording Academy President Michael Greene introduced Eminem’s performance with a sanctimonious lecture titled “It Takes Tolerance to Teach Tolerance.” But once Elton John, wearing a pink-and-yellow polka dot suit, joined Em to soulfully sing Dido’s hook, the rapper’s dramatic performance rose above the controversy. Elton spoke of Eminem in the most glowing terms: “When we started to do the song and Eminem made his entrance, I got goosebumps, the likes of which I have not felt since I first saw Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, James Brown and Aretha Franklin.”
Moby, Jill Scott and Blue Man Group, “Natural Blues” (2001)
Moby’s roots-electronica epoch Play was well on its way to being a hipper-restaurant staple by the time the 2001 Grammys rolled around, and Best New Artist nominee Jill Scott’s performance of the song’s hook – based on Alabama belter Vera Hall’s “Trouble So Hard” – showed off her robust voice. But the then-ascendant body-paint-covered collective the Blue Man Group’s inclusion on the bill took away from the song’s simple power, turning it into a showcase for their broad-stroke percussion and blue-hued skin.
Foo Fighters and Chick Corea, “Times Like These” (2004)
Chick Corea’s electric piano was a key component on Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, though the keyboardist fashioned a much more commercial form of jazz fusion after going his own way. There’s nothing particularly jazzy about the lengthy, ornate introduction he provides at the start of his collabo with the the Foo Fighters in 2004 — it’s more like Roy Bittan of the E Street Band, or maybe even Bruce Hornsby. But Corea gets to brandish his chops later in the performance, as he and Dave Grohl do that Grammy thing where two musicians solo at the same time.
The Black Eyed Peas, Gwen Stefani, Eve, Maroon 5, Los Lonely Boys and Franz Ferdinand, “Medley” (2005)
A kitchen-sink show opener in 2005, this medley didn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason for its featured performers: Black Eyed Peas’ inescapable “Let’s Get It Started” was up for Record Of The Year; the smoothies in Maroon 5 would go on to win Best New Artist; the then-red-hot Los Lonely Boys were nominated for (and lost in) both those categories; and the other artists were nominated for genre awards. Franz Ferdinand did, however, play their chugging “Take Me Out” with breakdancers.
The All-Star “Across the Universe” Tribute (2005)
This tribute to the victims of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami brought together Bono, Stevie Wonder (and his harmonica), Norah Jones, Brian Wilson, Alicia Keys, Billie Joe Armstrong, Alison Krauss (and her violin), Steven Tyler (and his maracas), Tim McGraw and Scott Weiland, whose vocals indicated, as you’d might expect, that he was a huge fan of the version David Bowie recorded for Young Americans. Velvet Revolver is the band, with Slash playing a 12-string. At the climax, the singers transform John Lennon’s Buddhist koan “Nothing’s gonna change my world” into “Something’s gonna change my world.”
Gorillaz, Madonna and De La Soul, “Feel Good Inc.”/”Hung Up” (2006)
Damon Albarn’s cartoon band took three-dimensional holographic form for the night, with bassist Murdoc in cape and undies, Russel Hobbs looming enormous over his tiny drum set and singer 2D preening, as frontmen will do. De La Soul leap out energetically onstage, eventually bursting into the hysterical laughter of men who never expected to appear on a major television awards show rapping with a cartoon. (Unimpressed, prima donna 2D looks at his phone while they rap.) Then Noodles strolls casually to perch on a stool and strum an acoustic guitar, soon joined by Madonna, leggy and vibrant, to perform “Hung Up.” Eventually, her non-holographic band and backing dancers fill the stage.
Linkin Park feat. Jay Z and Paul McCartney, “Numb/Encore/Yesterday” (2006)
The 2004 album Collision Course commemorated the coming together of rap-rockers Linkin Park and rock-interested rapper Jay Z – both near the height of their powers – as well as the solidification of “mash-up culture” in the music-business firmament. A little over a year after that album came out, the Grammys decided to get in on the action, too; the 2006 ceremony featured cross-genre pairings from all over the map. The biggest pairing, torch-passing wise, was definitely Paul McCartney’s blessing of the Jay/LP track “Numb/Encore” with a few lines from the Beatles’ much-beloved “Yesterday.”
The All-Star Sly Stone Tribute (2006)
A lengthy tribute to the funk icon. Joss Stone, John Legend and Van Hunt’s “Family Affair” started it off with some sparks; Fantasia’s duet with Devon Lima (formerly of Abercrombie & Fitch-loving boy band LFO) got slightly manic before ending abruptly; Adam Levine of Maroon 5 supplied a straightforward nod to his band’s blue-eyed soul roots, counterbalanced by Ciara’s shaky vocal on “Everyday People”; will.i.am took the title of “Dance to the Music” literally with a performance that was more memorable for his footwork than for his freestyle, in which he called himself the “black Fred Astaire”; and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith scatted over the riffs of his usual foil Joe Perry, paired with Robert Randolph’s slide guitar. Then – making good on one of the most rumoured Grammy performances of the 2000s – Sly himself came out, sporting a huge blonde Mohawk and letting his acolytes take most of the mic duties during a boisterous, if somewhat anticlimactic, performance of “I Want To Take You Higher.” The weird chaos definitely seemed analogous to Stone’s twisted, lengthy travels along stardom’s bumpy road.
Keely Smith and Kid Rock, “That Ol’ Black Magic” (2008)
Pop vocalist Keely Smith performed at the very first Grammy Awards show, back when it aired as part of the NBC Sunday Showcase in 1959. That year, she and Louis Prima won the inaugural Grammy for Best Performance by a Vocal Group or Chorus for their recording of “That Old Black Magic.” To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the awards in 2008, Smith returned, then a spry and lively 75 years old, but Prima couldn’t make it, on account of being dead for 30 years. Of the many non-Louis-Prima living male singers available (David Lee Roth would’ve killed it), somebody decided on Kid Rock, who occasionally sounds like he knows what he’s doing. Also, that’s Dave Koz hamming around beside them on saxophone.
Stevie Wonder and Jonas Brothers “Burnin’ Up” and “Superstition” (2009)
In retrospect, this might not seem like that odd a team-up, now that Nick is grooving his way to solo fame with steamy R&B-flavoured hits and Joe has assembled his own funk-pop band, DNCE. But at the time, the Jonases were just cute teenyboppers sharing the stage with a bona fide legend. Game as ever for whatever the Grammys asked of him, Stevie sounded right at home on the Jonases’ “Burnin’ Up,” electronically modulating his voice for the intro. But the brothers weren’t quite ready for Stevie’s “Superstition.” After the first verse, Nick cockily asks “Mind if I take this, Stevie?” “Come on, Nick,” the elder graciously replies. And then the poor kid flubs the lyrics. Talk about bad luck.
Alicia Keys and Frank Sinatra, “Learnin’ the Blues” (2008)
A consummate professional, Frank Sinatra wasn’t going to let a little thing like being dead for ten years keep him from opening the Grammys’ 50th Anniversary show. After a clip (from the 1963 show) of Ol’ Blue Eyes explaining how you win a Grammy (it’s “not for selling a million records mind you — you get bread for that — this is for contributions to the art of recording”), Alicia Keys took the stage to play piano, dueting with a video image of the Chairman, though her ad libs (“Sing it, Frank”) showed her trying a little too hard to generate chemistry.
Radiohead and the USC Trojan Marching Band, “15 Step” (2009)
Not since Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk had rockers used a college marching band so effectively – in fact, Radiohead hired the same band that Lindsey Buckingham did. (Not the same band members of course, unless there was some 40-something tuba player who was really in no hurry to graduate.) But all those musicians don’t upstage Thom Yorke, who was in fine, magnetically spidery form, leather-jacketed and shaggy-haired and looking like a genetically modified David Spade. Although this was Radiohead’s first Grammy performance, it wasn’t the Trojans’ – they’d backed OutKast during the 2004 Grammys. And two weeks later they’d be back on TV, performing onstage at the Oscars with Beyoncé and Hugh Jackman.
CeeLo Green, Gwyneth Paltrow and the Muppets, “Forget You” (2011)
How to deliver middle America “Fuck You,” CeeLo Green’s gleefully profane lament about a money-minded ex? The Grammys telecast brought the censored version, the Muppets and Gwyneth Paltrow (whose Nashville melodrama Country Strong had its wide release shortly before the ceremony). While Green wasn’t backed by the Muppet house band, the Electric Mayhem, the combined visual spectacle of his outlandish getup, his felted backing singers (including one shocked pug), and Paltrow lustily belting out a verse made up for the lack of Animal.
Yolanda Adams, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride and Florence Welch, Tribute to Aretha Franklin (2011)
Aretha Franklin was in ill health in 2011 and the Grammys’ version of a get-well bouquet was a show-opening performance of her biggest hits featuring ladies from pop, R&B, country, rock and gospel. The medley felt a bit disjointed – and certain singers’ ill-fitting vocal stylings made Franklin’s absence from the stage even more deeply felt – but it was, at least in length, a testament to the massive back catalog of the Grammys’ most-decorated female pop icon. And one person felt like a little more time could have been carved out of the broadcast – season 3 American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino, who sat out the Grammys because of what she felt was a snub. “At the end of the day, I should have been on that stage,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.
Deadmau5 and Foo Fighters, “Rope” (2012)
Though the 2012 Grammys’ celebration of EDM might have seemed a little forced, the Recording Academy didn’t broker this strange collaboration: Rat-headed festival DJ Deadmau5 had already remixed the Foos’ “Rope” the previous year. As mouse-eared ravers look blissfully on, a straightforward rock performance gradually gives way to buzzsaw electronics and zero-gravity bass drops. After displaying his broad musical tastes, however, Grohl drew some flak for his acceptance speech that night, where he celebrated “the human element of music,” saying, “Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do … it’s not about what goes on in a computer.”
Metallica and Lang Lang, “One” (2014)
Metallica have always prized the virtuoso chops, complex compositions, instrumental force and high seriousness of classical music. So this collaboration with the most renowned Chinese concert pianist of his age made some sense – at least in theory. Lang Lang performed a dramatic solo prelude as flames shot up behind him, and then the ominous guitar introduction to “One” upstages him and his playing slips into the ensemble. When he competes with the guitars during the song’s solo sections, he can’t match their volume and his playing grows harsh and discordant to compensate – certainly a more avant-garde moment than the Grammys usually offer. Lang would be back the following year in a more conventional setting, performing “Happy” with Pharrell and Hans Zimmer.
Imagine Dragons and Kendrick Lamar, “Radioactive/m.A.A.d. City” (2014)
“I need y’all to recognize that Plan B is to win your hearts right here while we at the Grammys,” Kendrick Lamar rapped during this mash-up of his brash good kid, m.A.A.d. city track with Imagine Dragons’ stomping “Radioactive.” While the lyric was a success-saluting variation on a verse he dropped at the end of 2013, the way he commanded the stage not only got Taylor Swift and Steven Tyler dancing, it turned the line into an instantly fulfilled prophecy.