Eric Clapton, the legendary rock guitarist/singer long deified by his fans, ascended to Grammy heights, capturing six prizes, including album, song and record of the year, to highlight the 35th annual Grammy Awards last night at the Shrine Auditorium.

Clapton, whose single “Tears in Heaven” detailed his heartbreak after his young’s son’s accidental death, admitted when he accepted his album of the year award that he was convinced that his award-winning “Unplugged” album “wasn’t worth releasing.”

“I didn’t want this to come out,” he said, “then finally agreed to it coming out in a limited edition. Then it sold a few, a few more, and I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’ “

When he later accepted record of the year to cap the event, Clapton added, “I’d like to thank my son for the love he gave me and the song he gave me.”

The big night for the veteran British guitarist began in the preshow, where he won awards for rock vocal male and rock song for the acoustic remake of his 1972 hit “Layla,” which he co-wrote with Jim Gordon.

Song of the year, which was awarded early in the telecast portion of the program, proved a litmus test for the major awards to come. Clapton and Will Jennings shared the songwriter award for “Tears in Heaven.”

Clapton had earlier won best pop vocal male for “Tears in Heaven,” which he also performed at the end of the show.

Arrested Development, one of the year’s cutting-edge acts, surprised some observers by winning best new artist, topping favorites Jon Secada and Billy Ray Cyrus. The group also won for rap performance by a duo or group, capping its night with a performance of “People Everyday.”

Peter Gabriel got the regular show off to an impressive start, being carried in on a chair to present a multimedia version of his song “Steam.” Gabriel performed wearing a mock muscle bodysuit.

Singer k.d. lang began her night with a performance of “Constant Craving,” nominated for song of the year. She later won the Grammy for pop vocal performance female for the song, beating Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Annie Lennox and Vanessa Williams. It was to be her only victory, however, as she lost in the other four categories she was tapped for, including album, song and record of the year.

Some lose all

Most disappointed artists of the night were Billy Ray Cyrus, who lost in the three major categories (record, song and new artist) for which he was nominated; and Vanessa Williams, who also failed to win any of her three nominations.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers performed “Give It Away,” joined by George Clinton, in the night’s most outrageous performance. The Chilis also pulled what purists may view as an upset by copping the best hard rock performance with vocal for the song, besting odds-on favorite “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana and the Pearl Jam single “Jeremy.”

Bassist Flea said backstage that the song wasn’t even a hard rock song, noting, “The only reason we were nominated in this category is the color of our skin.”

Motown’s Boyz II Men, whom many felt were slighted in the nominations, salved some ego by winning two Grammys, including R&B performance by a duo or group with vocal for the single, “End of the Road,” which also copped R&B song in precast for songwriters L.A. Reid, Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds and Daryl Simmons.

Vince Gill won the country vocal performance male, a conservative choice by the Academy, which avoided the more controversial Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Travis Tritt, who were also up for the award. Gill was effusive in his praise for MCA in his acceptance speech, noting the support country has received from the company. The producer of the year race resulted in a tie, with honors going to the team of Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno as well as L.A. Reid, Kenneth (Babyface) Edmonds, and Daryl Simmons.

Other performers included Vanessa Williams, doing “Save The Best For Last”; En Vogue, “Free Your Mind”; Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole, “The Lady Is a Tramp”; Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt, “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’ “; Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart”; an all-star choir of Patti Austin, Chaka Khan, Andrae Crouch, Sondra Crouch, Edwin Hawkins, Tramaine Hawkins, Al Jarreau, Marilyn McCoo, and Phylicia Rashad, “Handel’s Messiah “Hallelujah”; Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson, “Beauty and the Beast”; and Arturo Sandoval & the GRP All Stars, “Cherokee.”

Jackson to Jackson

Michael Jackson was presented with a Grammy “Living Legend” award by his sister, Janet.

The award is given for ongoing contributions to the recording industry.

The changing nature of the Grammy voting block was reflecting in several awards during the precast.

Melissa Etheridge triumphed over past Grammy winners Tina Turner and Alannah Myles in the best rock vocal performance, female, winning for the track “Ain’t It Heavy” from her Island release, “Never Enough.” Etheridge won her first Grammy.

Eyebrows were also raised by Tom Waits’ win in the alternative music category , also his first Grammy victory.

Waits wins

Waits, considered an offbeat songwriter but certainly not the college radio fodder that constitutes most of what is usually perceived as “alternative music, ” won for his Island album “Bone Machine,” beating out the B-52’s, the Cure, Morrissey and XTC.

Best metal performance with vocal went to Nine Inch Nails, a band not known for its pipes. The group won for the song “Wish” from its “Broken” album. The win may have been a battle of attrition, considering its competition was Helmet, Megadeth, Ministry and Soundgarden, none of them the Frank Sinatras of the ’90s.

In a mild upset, Chaka Khan won for her Warner Bros. album “The Woman I Am,” in the R&B vocal performance female category. She bested such mainstream talents as Whitney Houston, Oleta Adams, Shanice and Vanessa Williams.

The sentiment factor

But the Grammy penchant for tradition and sentiment was also a factor in the early voting results.

The “Beauty” film music took Grammys for album for children; pop performance by a duo or group with vocal; instrumental composition written for a motion picture or for television, and song written specifically for a motion picture or for television.

The music from the television series “Beauty & the Beast” (the 1987-90 CBS version) won best pop instrumental performance for a track from the album “Symphonic Hollywood.”

It was recorded by the Nurenberg Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Richard Kaufman.

The Chieftains, Linda Ronstadt and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble took home two Grammys apiece during the precast.

Ronstadt cited

Ronstadt, continuing her explorations of her Latin roots, won for best tropical Latin album and best Mexican/American album. The Chieftains had the best of both worlds, winning for contemporary folk and traditional folk.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, killed in a plane crash two years ago, got a sentimental vote for his “The Sky Is Crying” posthumous collection, winning for contemporary blues album and copping best rock instrumental performance for “Little Wing,” a track from that album.

Sir Georg Solti continued to add to his lifetime Grammy record, winning his 30th Grammy during the precast with a share of the prize for best opera recording for “R. Strauss: Die Frau Ohne Schatten.”

NARAS award

The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences also presented its lifetime achievement awards, which honor lifelong artistic contributions to the recording medium.

Winners included guitar innovator Chet Atkins, R&B pioneer Little Richard, jazzman Thelonious Monk, bluegrass leader Bill Monroe, folk singer Pete Seeger and pianist Fats Waller. The 1992-93 Trustees Awards, presented to individuals for out standing contributions in a nonperforming capacity, went to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, blues songwriter/publisher W.C. Handy and jazz writer George Simon.

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