BEVERLY HILLS, California — Ever since 1976, Clive Davis has been throwing his pre-Grammy gala, a celebration of the year in music that's part concert, part cocktail reception, part roast. It's become the event during Grammy week, a black-tie party attended by the biggest stars, a soiree as synonymous with the awards as those golden gramophone trophies.
And yet, in its 35 years, there's probably never been a Clive Davis party like the one that took place on Saturday night. It occurred just hours after the death of Whitney Houston, the legendary producer and music executive's crown jewel, was announced, in the very hotel where Houston's body was discovered. Understandably, there was a rather palpable pall to the proceedings (so much so that several outlets reported the grieving Davis had decided to cancel the event), though most in attendance seemed to believe Whitney would've wanted the show to go on. So while throngs of Houston fans began to hold a candlelight vigil outside the Beverly Hilton, inside, Davis himself was stepping up to the podium to deliver a eulogy for an artist who was not only his greatest discovery, but one of his closest friends.
"By now, sadly, we've all learned of the unspeakable [tragedy] of our beloved Whitney's passing," Davis said, visibly shaken. "I don't have to mask my emotions, not in front of this room filled with so many dear friends. I am personally devastated. Whitney was so full of life ...
she was a beautiful person with talent beyond compare. She graced the stage with a regal presence ... and her family asked that the show go on."
Davis then asked those in attendance — everyone from Richard Branson and Joni Mitchell to Sean "Diddy" Combs and Serena Williams (not to mention Britney Spears, Lana Del Rey, Adam Lambert and more) — to join him in a moment of silence to honor Houston's memory, and you could hear a pin drop. Then, he announced that this night's gala would be dedicated to the singer, before announcing, "And now, on with the music."
For the next three-plus hours, the talent in the room did their best to not only rise to the occasion but to vocalize the shock and sadness they were feeling in the hours after Houston's death. Tony Bennett remembered that after Davis had signed Houston to Arista Records in the early 1980s, he told him, "Clive, you finally got the greatest singer I ever heard in my life," before performing a somber rendition of Frank Sinatra's "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" Diddy recalled Houston's smile and "natural, positive spirit," before telling the audience that "Whitney, simply put, had the greatest voice in the world. She was a gift from God."
After finishing his tribute, Combs then reminded the crowd that Davis'
gala has always been about celebrating — he repeated the phrase "There ain't no party like a Clive Davis party" — and urged those in attendance to get out of their seats and give both Davis and Bennett standing ovations.
That energy carried over into Kinks frontman Ray Davies' raucous set, which had the men of Mumford & Sons leaping out of their seats.
Pitbull, who teamed with Ne-Yo for a spirited sprint through their hit "Give Me Everything," also managed to lift the event out of the shadows.
Alicia Keys shared stories of singing "I Want to Dance With Somebody"
in front of the mirror as a child, and she talked about her longtime friendship with Houston, whom she called "a sister." She then played an emotional mini-set on the piano, which included her leading the audience in a sing-along to the chorus of "No One," a fitting tribute indeed.
Wiz Khalifa, who earlier in the night told MTV News that he planned on celebrating Houston's life onstage, lived up to that promise during his brief set, burning through his hit "Black and Yellow" while backed by a cracking live band. And Brit import Jessie J had the attention of the entire room as she spoke about Houston's influence, saying that when she first got signed at the age of 17, her #1 goal was meeting the singer.
Of course, not everyone found the strength to perform. Towards the end of the night, Davis once again returned to the lectern and informed the audience that two of Houston's disciples, Brandy and Monica, were scheduled to take the stage (he added that Houston had attended a rehearsal of their performance on Thursday), but were too emotional to make it through their song.
And in a night overflowing with tributes to the late singer, it was that moment that truly said it all. Houston was not only a prodigious talent, she was also a friend, a mother, a family member ...
and all those points were mentioned time and time again during Saturday's celebration. But the unspoken grief of two of Houston's closest friends made it abundantly clear that she was also loved dearly, and that those who knew her best are struggling to put her death into perspective. But at the very least, this night was the first step.