British singer Sam Smith looks for Grammy glory

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Fresh-faced British singer Sam Smith stands to make history Sunday at the Grammys with a chance to sweep all top categories, but he faces stiff competition from Beyonce and Pharrell Williams.

A bartender until a few years ago, the 22-year-old Smith has enjoyed a phenomenal rise as "Stay With Me" - a ballad about a one-night stand marked by his rich, soulful tenor voice - became a breakaway hit.

Smith is up Sunday for Grammys in the four most closely watched categories - Album of the Year; Record of the Year, which honors the top tune; Song of the Year, which recognizes the composer; and Best New Artist.

Only one artist has previously won all four categories at once - Christopher Cross, whose 1981 triumph heralded a decade of soft rock as he controversially beat out Pink Floyd's now-classic "The Wall". Smith is tied for the most Grammy nominations on Sunday at six - the same number as Beyonce and Williams.

Beyonce has already won 17 Grammys but never the most prestigious Album of the Year.

The 33-year-old singer offered some of her most personal work on her latest, self-titled album, which she recorded in secret and released with no previous publicity in December 2013.

The former teen star with R&B band Destiny's Child notably explores sexuality on "Beyonce," which includes the ode to marital bliss "Drunk in Love" sung with her husband Jay-Z.

A Grammy victory for Williams would serve as vindication for the 41-year-old producer who achieved success in his own right with the globally viral song of optimism, "Happy." Williams last year enjoyed Grammy nominations for his work both on Robin Thicke's lustful "Blurred Lines" and with the French electronic duo Daft Punk, who were 2014's big winners.

A dark horse for Album of the Year is "Morning Phase" by Beck, the innovative Los Angeles rocker who for two decades has enjoyed critical acclaim and a cult following, if not the mainstream appeal usually recognised by the Grammys.

Also up for Album of the Year is X by Ed Sheeran - like Smith, a British singer and relative newcomer - who previously worked with pop giants such as Taylor Swift and boy band One Direction.

Smith's star soared amid intense promotion by US label Capitol Records, whose chief executive Steve Barnett earlier bet big on another soul-infused British singer, Adele.

"In The Lonely Hour", Smith's debut, was the third top-selling album in the United States in 2014. The only albums to surpass it were Swift's "1989" - released too late for Grammy eligibility - and the soundtrack to the Disney movie "Frozen".

Smith has built a fan base with his prolific use of social media and impeccably polite manners. He has drawn a fine line by acknowledging his sexual orientation while striving not to be pigeon-holed as a gay singer.

But in a pre-Grammy interview with Rolling Stone, the rising superstar vowed never to perform in Russia due to its "disgusting" treatment of gays - a reference to a 2013 law that outlaws gay "propaganda." "No matter how many billions of pounds you could offer me, I just couldn't, which is sad because I have Russian fans," he said.

Another new star in contention is Iggy Azalea, who would be the first woman to win for Best Rap Album.

Azalea, who is also up for Best New Artist and Record of the Year, has become a cultural flashpoint as the white Australian raps in an accent that is markedly African American.

Her most prominent critic has been rapper Azealia Banks, who has accused Azalea of exploiting African American culture and regretted that the music industry does not offer more space to women of colour.

The Grammys, which take place at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, are known for elaborate, surprise-filled shows meant to pull in television viewers.

This year's performers will include Madonna, who made an unannounced appearance at the 2014 Grammys as part of a mass wedding set to "Same Love", the gay rights anthem by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

The last Grammys also featured a reunion of sorts of the Beatles, with surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr joined by family members.

McCartney will return to perform Sunday - this time to showcase a very different venture, his collaboration with R&B singer Rihanna and hip-hop star Kanye West.

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