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Contenders for Rock, Pop, R&B Grammys Include Former Military Captain, High School Dropout

The U.S. recording industry gathers February 11 to honor outstanding achievements in all facets of music. VOA's Ray McDonald focuses on some of the more interesting stories from the 49th annual Grammy Award races.

In 1999, Captain James Blunt was one of 30,000 NATO peacekeeping troops in the Kosovan capital of Pristina. Not quite eight years later, he's a millionaire musician. In 1988, a 17-year-old New Yorker named Mary Jane Blige made her first recording in a booth in a shopping mall. Today, she leads all 2007 Grammy nominees with eight. Nineteen years ago, the Red Hot Chili Peppers buried their founding guitarist Hillel Slovak, after finding him dead of a heroin overdose. Today, they're the most successful Modern Rock act in Billboard magazine chart history.

These are just three of the many stories from the 49th annual Grammy Award competition, which climaxes February 11 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

James Blunt, born James Hillier Blount, came from a long line of military men. A commissioned officer in the British Army's Household Cavalry, he also stood guard over the Queen Mother's coffin at her 2002 funeral. But James also loved to sing - and touched a worldwide chord with his smash hit single "You're Beautiful."

Last year, "You're Beautiful" made James Blunt the first British act to top the U.S. pop singles chart in nearly a decade. This ode to a former girlfriend figures in five Grammy races: Best Pop Vocal Album; Best Male Pop Vocal; Best New Artist; Song Of The Year; and Record Of The Year.

Competing against James for Record and Song of the Year honors is Mary J. Blige, a three-time Grammy winner, who over the past 16 years has earned the nickname "The Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul." As a teenaged high school dropout from a broken home, Mary found solace in music. Her first recording was an impromptu cover of an Anita Baker song, done at a booth in a shopping mall. Today, Mary J. Blige leads all 2007 Grammy nominees with eight. Helping her reach this pinnacle is her chart-topping single "Be Without You."

While Mary J. is the "Queen Of Hip-Hop Soul," the Red Hot Chili Peppers may be considered the kings of modern rock. This Southern California quartet holds the record for the most weeks atop Billboard magazine's Modern Rock Chart, with 78. Formed 24 years ago in Los Angeles, the band displays an exuberance at odds with its downbeat history. Lead singer Anthony Kiedis battled heroin addiction for years. One of the band's biggest hits, "Under The Bridge," describes his struggles with the drug. Founding guitarist Hillel Slovak suffered a fatal heroin overdose in 1988, while drug problems also touched other band members. Last year, the older and wiser Chili Peppers enjoyed their first U.S. number one album with Stadium Arcadium - and their fastest-selling single with "Dani California."

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are competing for six Grammy Awards this year, including Album Of The Year. Among the competition is the duo Gnarls Barkley, currently the opening act on the Chili Peppers' U.S. tour. Gnarls Barkley's also in the race for Best New Artist, competing against former American Idol winner Carrie Underwood; British R&B chanteuse Corinne Bailey Rae; teenaged R&B singer Chris Brown; British singer-songwriter Imogen Heap - and James Blunt.

The Grammy Awards carry extra weight with musicians, as it is their peers - not the public - who determine winners. This year's competition features 108 categories, among them Best Rock Instrumental Performance.