By Steve Hochman
"I actually have no idea what the [expletive] award is. I'm sure he deserves it."
Who else but Cher could — or would — introduce media mogul David Geffen that way as he was honored with The Recording Academy's President's Merit Award at the 2011 GRAMMY Salute To Industry Icons as part of the annual Pre-GRAMMY Gala on the GRAMMY telecast eve, co-hosted by The Academy and music business titan Clive Davis on Saturday night at the Beverly Hilton.
And the salty tongue seemed contagious. Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow stepped in to say that he'd be happy to explain the "[expletive] award," though he said he was merely quoting Cee Lo Green, whose song commonly referred to by its PG title "Forget You" is nominated for both Song and Record Of The Year at Sunday's 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards.
Frankly, the award is self-explanatory with Geffen — who was humble and brief in his acceptance remarks — rightly joining previous recipients including Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, former Warner Bros. and Geffen Records head Mo Ostin, the A&M Records team of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, Motown prime mover Berry Gordy, Davis and Universal Music chairman Doug Morris in the GRAMMY Salute To Industry Icons pantheon. A short film featuring piquant comments from clients and rivals alike recounted Geffen's run from manager (starting with Laura Nyro in the late '60s and then Joni Mitchell, the Eagles and many others) to label owner (Asylum and later Geffen Records) to film studio head (DreamWorks) to philanthropist, not to mention his hairstyle evolution from curly to shaven.
In any case, Davis himself, who has thrown this gala shindig since 1976, officially partnering with The Recording Academy three years ago, got in the spirit too, introducing Green's performance of the song in question with pointed use of the unexpurgated title. That alone might have made it worth the singer having gotten out of a sick bed to make the performance. Sick or not, Green delivered a spirited performance, if rendering the others' colorful language almost trivial.
It's what this evening has become known for through the years, a chance for the recording industry elite — veterans and newcomers alike — to simultaneously let down their collective guard on the night before the GRAMMYs and honor achievers in the business, both the icons and Davis. I got to see "Glee" cast members mingling with established music stars, as they should, given the show's impact on the pop charts, music trends and music education. Meanwhile, Neil Young was laughing and chummy with Quincy Jones, Brandy was up front dancing to various performances and assorted "minglers" ranging from Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry to Jane Fonda and Warren Beatty.
And it's those performances that may be what this gala is best known for. It's not like Davis has any trouble getting people on stage. This year's lineup was typically wide-reaching, a nice musical capsule of 2011. One clear highlight was Mary J. Blige serenading Geffen with "Free Man In Paris," the song Joni Mitchell wrote in 1974 about him, her then-manager. Relative newcomers Mumford & Sons and Janelle Monáe kicked things off with winning mini-sets of vibrant folkie harmonies and explosive rock and soul, respectively. R. Kelly returned from a long concert absence, entering from the back of the room singing a funked-up version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Jennifer Hudson offered a song written and produced by Kelly and then paid tribute to her hero Aretha Franklin with a dynamic "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." "Glee" star Matthew Morrison — who on the arrivals carpet was a-tingle with tales of having performed for Barbra Streisand the night before when she was honored at the annual MusiCares Person of the Year tribute — pulled out a ukulele for "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." And then Cee Lo told everyone just what was on his mind.
Some in the crowd then left to get some rest before Sunday's festivities. Too bad for them. They missed out on a unique treat, sure to be buzzed about for years. Davis told the gathering of his delight in learning that audience member Dionne Warwick was celebrating 50 years in music, and he brought out Whitney Houston — one of his discoveries and Warwick's cousin — to sing a medley of the elder performer's hits. "Walk On By" melted into "I Say A Little Prayer," then a dramatic bit of "Alfie." And then, delighting all but surprising few, Warwick herself came out for "That's What Friends Are For," joining her younger cousin for an emotional duet to close the night. Houston seemed to want to continue, but Davis pulled her to him at the podium and said, "I found you when you were 19. I'm still your boss." And then he bid all a good night.