Even more than the Grammy Awards themselves, Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy party was the event most closely associated with the late Whitney Houston. The singer’s close relationship with the man who helped launch her career made her a staple at the party, where she had several memorable performances over the years.
As Davis himself said from the stage Saturday night, “She was so looking forward to tonight even though she wasn’t scheduled to perform. She loved music, and she loved this night that celebrates music.”
That Davis was in attendance on this night was one of the many questions that surrounded the affair. The first speculation was that upon the news of Houston’s sudden and tragic passing just hours before the party was scheduled to start, the gala would be canceled altogether.
Inside the Beverly Hilton hotel, where security was beefed up, news crews filmed live updates and police could still be seen walking all throughout the lobby level of the hotel, most people were a little surprised the celebration went on. Several artists said they expected it to be scuttled. But once word got out that the party would go on, stars came out in droves, with Dr. Dre, Diddy, Mary J. Blige, Tom Hanks, Britney Spears, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, Skrillex, Slash and many more on hand. Some, like Slash, said they came to support Davis, a sentiment echoed by Diddy in his remarks from the stage, where he spoke of Davis’ generosity.
Recording Academy President Neil Portnow addressed rumors about the party having been close to being canceled, saying that was never a consideration. And Davis gave a reason why they soldiered on in his heartfelt opening remarks, “Simply put, Whitney would have wanted the music to go on, and her family asked that we carry on.”
And so the music did, starting around 9:15. Tony Bennett kicked the musical portion of the night off with a moving interpretation of “How Do You Keep The Music Playing.” He was followed by Diana Krall, another excellent choice, as both lent a solemn note of elegance to the proceedings.
Many of the performances were planned and booked months ago, so they had little to do with Houston, such as the tribute to Ray Davies and the Kinks. Davies, joined by Jackson Browne and Elvis Costello, brought power and a bit of the old snarl to classics like “All Day And All Of The Night, “Lola” and “Waterloo Sunset.” Musically, it was the high point of the night. The set was still very much appreciated by the crowd, who gave Davies his due, even if the earlier portions of the night were subdued.
Many people didn’t seem to know how to react, given Houston had died only a few hours earlier in the very same hotel. Once inside the ballroom – where there was a heavy mixture of artists, industry and press – the subject was rarely brought up, with a clear, if unspoken, understanding it was just too soon and too raw.
Those that took to the stage, however, did speak of Houston, with both Bennett and Diddy referring to her as one of the “greatest voices” ever. Aside from Davis, the most moving tribute came from Alicia Keys, who eloquently described the genesis of what she called her unexpected friendship with Houston. After recalling Houston coming to visit in some remote location, “I don’t even know where,” and congratulating Keys on her then-unannounced pregnancy, Keys summed up her sentiments by calling the late singer “my sister.”
It was a sentiment shared by many in the room where Houston had so many triumphs. Monica and Brandy – who were promoting “It All Belongs to Me,” their first song together since the 1998 smash “The Boy Is Mine ” – were in the words of Davis, “too grief-stricken to perform.” Brandy’s brother Ray J had dated Houston in the past, and there were rumors the couple had recently reunited.