The pre-Grammy parties kicked off Friday with the MusiCares Person of the Year event. And leave it to Paul McCartney to upstage his own tribute, breaking tradition for a MusiCares honoree by opening the show with a rousing rendition of “Magical Mystery Tour,” a fitting intro to the McCartney songbook that would assume new definition with every artist who appeared onstage. Coldplay performed “We Can Work It Out” as if it were a plea for world peace; Katy Perry tapped her inner torch singer with “Hey Jude”; Neil Young and Crazy Horse slowed “I Saw Her Standing There” to a loping, grungy gate; and Norah Jones’ smokey delivery on “Oh Darling” helped prompt McCartney to comment later about “all these fantastic artists putting nuances on songs that I didn’t know were there.”
On Saturday, news of Whitney Houston’s death was a startling coda to an already emotional afternoon as the Grammy Special Awards honored several legends at the Wilshire Ebell. Recording Academy prexy Neil Portnow predicted, “There will be tears today,” but he had no idea how true this would be.
From Glen Campbell’s courage in the face of Alzheimer’s to the tear-filled acceptance speech from Wayne Jackson of the honored Memphis Horns and the onstage presence of the families of such luminaries as recording engineer Roger Nichols and producer-songwriter Dave Bartholomew, storied careers were poignantly celebrated. Diana Ross pointed to her five children onstage and said, “My children are my lifetime achievement.” And Allman Brothers Band founding member Gregg Allman alluded to his past by noting, “Music does soothe the savage beast” while also proclaiming his determination to be “back on the road again, making music.”
An ashen-faced Portnow rushed out of the Wilshire Ebell only moments after the ceremony ended to grapple with the acad’s response to Houston’s passing.
Rumors swirled that Clive Davis’ annual Salute to Industry Icons would be canceled, but the show went on. Davis dedicated Saturday’s event at the BevHilton to Houston’s memory, and began the evening with a moment of silence. Tony Bennett drew a standing ovation with the night’s first number, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.” A subdued solo version of “If I Had You” by Diana Krall was succeeded by somber speeches by Portnow and Sean Combs. And Alicia Keys recalled practicing Houston’s early hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” before a mirror as a girl, and said the late singer became a personal “barometer for what you wished for and hoped for and dreamed of.”
Elsewhere that night, the 6th Annual Primary Wave Music Pre-Grammy Party took place at the SLS Hotel, and a beyond-capacity crowd gathered to see perfs by Airborne Toxic Event, Alien Ant Farm, Natasha Bedingfield and Cee Lo Green. “What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the great Whitney Houston?” asked Green. “She was eloquent and extremely influential to me and it’s so tragic because it was so all of the sudden. She shined with her beauty and ability.”
(Christopher Morris and Erin Maxwell contributed to this report.)