By Chuck Crisafulli
Four years ago when music industry icon Clive Davis first hosted his legendary Pre-GRAMMY Gala as a jointly sponsored event with The Recording Academy, the spectacular star-studded evening was capped by one final transcendent performance: Whitney Houston took the stage of the Beverly Hilton Hotel ballroom, teased the crowd with a few lines of "I Will Always Love You," and then tore into a spirited rendition of "I'm Every Woman" that had the crowd up on its feet dancing and had Davis beaming like a proud father.
Houston, a Davis discovery and protégé, died in a room at the Beverly Hilton just hours before this year's gala, and even outside the hotel one could see that this night would be very different as the line of limos and SUVs dropping off celebrities at the front entrance had to make their way around what police marked off as a potential crime scene.
There'd been some question as to whether the event would go on in light of the events that had transpired, but artists and VIPs still turned out in force, creating some of the strange celebrity sighting mashups typical of the Pre-GRAMMY Gala bash: Tom Hanks to the right, Skrillex to the left, and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell straight ahead. Welcoming his guests, Davis — on what had to be one of the most difficult nights of his life — spoke of the personal devastation he felt over losing someone so close to him and dedicated the evening to Houston. He ended by saying, "Whitney loved music, and she loved this night ... So let the music begin."
The music that followed hadn't been conceived as a tribute, but it served that purpose beautifully. Tony Bennett dedicated a stirring rendition of "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?" and Diana Krall followed with a smoky, bluesy version of "If I Had You" The Kinks' Ray Davies brought some raucous energy to the room with a set that included guests appearances by Jackson Browne on "Waterloo Sunset" and Elvis Costello on "Days." By the time Davies cranked up "Lola" and "You Really Got Me," the crowd was on its feet.
Miranda Lambert was at the gala for the first time, and paid tribute to Houston with a song that she said showed off the "bit of R&B and booty" that she had to offer — "Baggage Claim." Virgin Group founder Richard Branson was honored at the Salute To Industry Icons portion of the evening, and had his praises sung in taped congratulations from the likes of Janet Jackson and Peter Gabriel. An emotional high point of the night came when Alicia Keys took a solo turn at a grand piano and spoke of how much Houston had influenced her as an artist before powering into a medley that featured "Empire State Of Mind," "New York State Of Mind" and a snippet of "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)." As the clock rolled past midnight, there was much more music to come, with sets by Wiz Khalifa and a special tribute to Diana Ross that featured current GRAMMY nominee Marsha Ambrosius.
On the decision to go on with the evening, Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow said, "Cancelling the party was never an option because you could hear Whitney on your shoulder saying, ‘This is showbiz. The show must go on.’”
Sean "Diddy" Combs was onstage early in the program to give Davis his formal introduction, but before doing so, he shared some heartfelt memories of Houston. "She was not a hater, she was a congratulator," he said, and commented that he'd always remember the "grandma hugs" she greeted him with. He said one of the things he'd miss most was Houston's positive spirit, but on this night, that spirit was deeply felt and properly celebrated.