This is the 50th anniversary of the Grammy awards, and the show emphasized that point with its very first performance. Alicia Keys, glammed-up with a '50s style, sat at the piano and sang "Learnin' the Blues" along with a black-and-white video performance from long-gone legend Frank Sinatra.
"Frank Sinatra looked good for 150, didn't he," Prince joked moments later before introducing Alicia Keys as the winner for best female R&B vocal for her smash "No One.
Carrie Underwood was another early performer with her revenge anthem "Before He Cheats," which had already earned two Grammys, including for best female country vocal performance.
Bruce Springsteen garnered three pre-show Grammys, including best rock song for "Radio Nowhere." Other early winners included the White Stripes, Justin Timberlake and Mary J. Blige, who both had two each; the Foo Fighters, Herbie Hancock and even Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama for best spoken-word album.
Though the pre-telecast ceremony, where most of the Grammys' 110 categories are doled out, is usually low on star-wattage, there were several big names on hand to accept their trophies, including Underwood, the Foos and Brad Paisley.
"You couldn't keep me from actually getting this myself - it's not the same when someone else gets this on your behalf," said Underwood.
West was the leading nominee with eight nods. In any other year he would have been the main storyline thanks to his history of awards-show tirades, his smash hit album "Graduation," which was up for album of the year, and the shocking death of his mother late last year.
But Winehouse - who wasn't even there - threatened to upstage West and everyone else. The troubled singer-songwriter was up for six awards, including album of the year for "Back to Black." She was due to perform via satellite from her native Britain, where she is being treated for substance abuse in a rehab center.
The 24-year-old star's personal life has fallen apart over the past year as her career blossomed. In the days leading up to the ceremony, suspense built over whether she would appear at the ceremony in any form. She was rejected Thursday for a U.S. work visa, but Grammy producers arranged for her to perform via telecast. Soon afterward, the U.S. government reversed itself and approved Winehouse, but it was too late for her to make the cross-continental trek.
The retro-soul singer's top-selling American debut was also up for song and record of the year for "Rehab."
Besides West and Winehouse, the other album of the year contenders were the Foo Fighters' "Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace," Vince Gill's "These Days," and Herbie Hancock's "River: The Joni Letters."
For record of the year, Winehouse's "Rehab" was competing against Beyonce's "Irreplaceable," Rihanna's "Umbrella," "The Pretender" by the Foo Fighters and Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around ... Comes Around."