The song was written and recorded by Dolly Parton in the 1970s but became a mega-selling signature hit for Houston with the release of "The Bodyguard" film and soundtrack.
On Sunday night, the soaring and epic song came at the end of the "In Memoriam" sequence as the photos of recently deceased music luminaries filled the screen behind Hudson. She blew a kiss at the end of the song, which was subdued but still packed with emotion — especially for the audience at the arena.
The funereal feel went further with a tribute by Bonnie Raitt and Alicia Keys to Etta James, who died last month. Also, in the pre-broadcast ceremony at which awards are handed out in dozens of Grammy categories, Tony Bennett brought the parents of the late Amy Winehouse to the stage to join him as he accepted the trophy for his collaboration with the singer who died last summer at age 27.
"We shouldn't be here," Mitch Winehouse told the audience. "Our darling daughter should be here."
Winehouse was one in a series of gifted female singer-songwriters who won over Grammy voters in recent years with blockbuster sales and a sense of music history. Norah Jones, Alicia Keyes and Lauryn Hill had historic nights running off with an armload of gramophone trophies — and Adele (born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins) of North London is now clearly on that list.
Adele's album "21" finished as the bestseller of 2011 with 5.82 million copies sold in North America. Her rousing hit "Rolling in the Deep" enjoyed the best year of sales of any song since "Candle in the Wind: Princess Diana Tribute," Elton John's charity single in 1997.
She became just the sixth performer in Grammy history to take album, record and song categoriesThe others: Dixie Chicks (2006), Eric Clapton (1992), Christopher Cross (1980), Carole King (1971) and Paul Simon (1970).
Adele also won best new artist in 2009, and her new shelf of trophies will make her a key figure to watch in the years to come.
The drama of her night was heightened by a moment of silence — just after she started singing "Rolling in the Deep" she and her band paused for a long beat, which caused a flicker of anxiety for audience members fretting about her throat condition. It was just a pause for drama amid a fairly flawless night. Adele joined Beyonce as the only woman to take home six Grammys in one night.
"This is ridiculous," Adele said on accepting record of the year, and then broke into tears when "21" was announced as the album winner to cap the show.
"This record is inspired by something everyone's been through, which is a rubbish relationship," she said. "It's gone on to do things I can't tell you…. It's been a life-changing year."
Adele shared the award for song of the year — the category honoring songwriters — with Paul Epworth for "Rolling in the Deep."
The Grammys are determined by about 13,000 voting members. The eligibility period for nominated recordings was Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2011.