At one table, Paul McCartney bros down with Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl. A few feet away, Diddy is jumping a banister to say hello to the Jonas Brothers, while out on the balcony, Duffy shares a smoke with Slash. Welcome to the Clive Davis pre-Grammy party — the hottest ticket in town for music makers and the most difficult to score for those who work with them. That's because the annual gala features intimate performances by some of music's biggest names (all of Davis' choosing) in a Beverly Hilton ballroom packed to the gills with celebrities and industry VIPs. It's one hell of a schmooze-fest, but also an unforgettable display of talent. (See it for yourself in our Grammy pre-party and rehearsal photo gallery.)
"There's nobody that's not here," said repeat attendee Akon on the red carpet early on in the evening. "You literally could take the [Grammy] trophies, grab everyone who's nominated and give them their award tonight. Seriously." Indeed, a quick scan of the guest list revealed at least a couple dozen nominees, including Kanye West (who slipped in mid-show with Dr. Dre), Jennifer Hudson, Estelle, Josh Groban, Leona Lewis, Taylor Swift, Chris Brown and Rihanna. And there were also plenty of Grammy winners past and present, among them: Rod Stewart, Prince, Barry Manilow, Herbie Hancock, and, yes, a comeback-ready Whitney Houston.
But as much as the fete is famous for who's there (though noticeably absent this year were Clive party regulars like Beyoncé, Jay Z, Alicia Keys, John Mayer, Pink, and Usher, who, Davis announced, had to cancel at the last minute due to a "serious family emergency"), the bigger picture is the music. Davis typically curates a mix of old and new, mostly pop and R&B with a smattering of rock, and always promises one surprise performance or a long-awaited comeback. This year, Kings of Leon filled the rock slot, playing their two singles, "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody" to a standing ovation by Grohl and McCartney. Leona Lewis extended her new artist billing by performing the chart-topping Grammy-nominated hit, "Bleeding Love." Jennifer Hudson elevated her rank, joining Manilow for the song, " I'll Be Good For You" (afterwards, he remarked, "What kind of a schmuck can follow that?"). Kelly Clarkson belted her new single, "My Life Would Suck Without You," along with Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart," by Davis' request. And at long last, Whitney Houston returned to the stage for a triumphant four-song mini-set.
And while usually it's Davis who bestows honors on the current Grammy graduating class and select alumni, this year he was the one getting recognized by the Recording Academy as part of its Salute to Industry Icons. Manilow did his part to pay tribute, telling the crowd, "Clive should get the Icon award every night. I think Clive has given the world more music than any person in history ever. I know that I wouldn't be here without him. I am the grateful recipient of this man's genius and I am proud to call him my friend." Houston echoed that sentiment. "He is truly my father in the music industry," she said from the stage. "We've been together for so long."
With a new album in the works, Houston's appearance was expected, though far from a sure thing. Carrie Underwood remembered last year's party, when Houston was in the audience but never took the mic. "Everybody was waiting on it and waiting, and it didn't happen. So I was very excited."
As the grand finale of the night, Houston did not disappoint. Wearing a form-fitting leopard-print dress and beaming with confidence and a healthy glow, she teased the audience with a snippet of "I Will Always Love You," before launching into "I Believe In You and Me," and "It's Not Right, But It's Okay." Jennifer Hudson, with Fantasia in tow, bolted for the front row so they could dance, sing and cheer along, while Jaime Foxx filmed it all on his digital camera. Houston closed out the set with a rousing version of "I'm Every Woman," which had Katy Perry hand-raising like a grandma at Sunday church. "She killed it," yelled Foxx after the last note was sung. "We gotta get this up on YouTube!"
The Grammy festivities are just getting started — stay tuned to Rolling Stone's Grammy hub for all the latest reports and photos.