The 54th annual Grammy Awards pulled in its largest audience since 1984 on Sunday night, as the music industry paid tribute to Whitney Houston following her sudden death.

CBS released a preliminary estimates, based on Neilsen numbers, of 39 million viewers for the 3½-half hour telecast from Los Angeles. It’s also a 41 per cent increase from last year. Firmer numbers are expected by the end of the day.

The largest audience ever for the Grammys was the 43.9 million who watched in 1984 as Michael Jackson moonwalked his way to a sweep of the major awards.

There was a surge in public interest in Houston’s death Saturday at age 48. She was found in her hotel room at the Beverly Hills Hilton, the night before the gala.

Grammys organizers rushed to acknowledge the loss, with host LL Cool J opening the show with a prayer in tribute to the award-winning singer.

"There is no way around this," LL Cool J, an actor and singer, said at the top of his monologue. "We've had a death in our family. At least for me, the only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer ... for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston." He read a prayer thanking the "heavenly Father for sharing our sister Whitney with us."

"Although she is gone too soon, we feel truly blessed by her beautiful spirit," he said.

Recording artist Jennifer Hudson also paid tribute to Houston, one of her personal idols, with a heartfelt rendition of I Will Always Love You, a song that earned Houston two Grammys in 1993. An emotional Hudson concluded the song with the words, "Whitney, we love — we love you," and left the stage to rousing applause.

Many artists, from Stevie Wonder to Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt, remembered Houston in their remarks.