November 17, 2003 05:59 PM

Ailing R&B veteran Luther Vandross and gritty rap newcomer 50 Cent were both double winners at Sunday night’s American Music Awards, setting the tone for an eclectic group of honorees that ranged from Kid Rock and Ricky Martin to Missy Elliott and Alabama.

The members of the public — who decide upon the awards — also honored several other veterans, including the Isley Brothers and Fleetwood Mac.

Vandross, 52, who is recovering from a life-threatening and debilitating stroke that he suffered in April, was honored with best male R&B performer and favorite soul-R&B album for his most recent CD, “Dance with My Father,” which was completed shortly before he became ill.

His mother, Mary Vandross, accepted both awards on his behalf. “I’m so very sorry that Luther cannot be here tonight in person,” she told the crowd, after a brief moment of tearful speechlessness, the Associated Press reports. “I’m here to represent him and say thanks to all of you who made this possible.”

“The Shield” star Michael Chiklis walked into the audience of L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium to hand the second award to the elder Vandross, who had difficulty climbing the stage steps the first time she accepted an award for her son. (Vandross reportedly can speak and walk with assistance but remains far from fully recovered.)

50 Cent (real name: Curtis Jackson), 27, who did not attend the ceremony, was named best male rap artist and best rap/hip-hop album for “Get Rich or Die Tryin,'” about his many brushes with death on the street.

Elliott, 32, was late picking up her trophy for female rap/hip-hop artist. “Somebody stole my limo, but I’m here now,” she said, taking the stage late in the show. Backstage she told reporters: “Somebody is riding around drinking my drinks and partying on their way to the clubs. There’s going to be a reward for y’all.”

The ubiquitous Britney Spears, 21, opened the ceremony by being lowered onstage in a purple corset, black hot pants and thigh-high boots so she could deliver a pyrotechnic-filled performance of her new song, “Me Against the Music,” reports AP.

She was followed by Kid Rock’s pounding cover of Bad Company’s 1975 anthem “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” He claimed the award for favorite male pop-rock artist at the end of the show.

“I’m a rapper, when it comes down to it. That’s what I started out as, that’s what I’ll always be,” Kid (real name: Robert James Ritchie), 32, said backstage. “I’m just cheating on my girlfriend over there with rock ‘n’ roll and country and whatnot.”

Justin Timberlake’s “Justified” won favorite pop album, Jennifer Lopez claimed best pop-rock female artist and Celine Dion was picked as favorite adult contemporary artist. Female country performer honors went to Faith Hill, while her husband, Tim McGraw, was chosen as favorite male country artist. Toby Keith’s “Unleashed” won him his first AMA for country album.

Late soul songstress Aaliyah was also honored as best female R&B artist, her third AMA since she perished in a 2001 plane crash.

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