BET Networks chair Debra L. Lee was the marquee honoree at Saturday night’s pre-Grammy gala, but the starry Clive Davis-hosted event ended up being just as much a tribute to Joni Mitchell, who made one of her first public appearances since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015.
Previously a reliable presence on the outdoor patio at the annual Beverly Hilton soirée, the wheelchair-bound Mitchell chatted with a procession of well-wishers from the back of the ballroom, and received a lengthy ovation when event organizer and emcee Davis warmly acknowledged her from the dais. Davis later brought out Judy Collins to serenade the crowd with “Both Sides, Now,” the Mitchell-penned 1967 classic that made both women famous.
Otherwise, the event was as starry as ever, featuring a who’s-who guest list with notables from the worlds of music (Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy, Britney Spears, Stevie Wonder, Beck, Max Martin, Metallica, Sean Combs, Russell Simmons, Lorde), film (Michael Keaton, Jane Fonda, Jeremy Renner, Brian Grazer), TV (Les Moonves, Lena Dunham), tech (Apple’s Tim Cook and Eddy Cue), and sports (Gabby Douglas, Martina Navratilova). Various Kardashians were also present.
After Bell Biv Devoe ran through “Poison” to kick off the evening, Davis was introduced by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who quoted both John Adams and Tom Petty in her remarks, and drew some rueful laughs when she asked: “Did everyone see those photos of President Obama kite-surfing? I think Obama is the only person who’s happy that Obama isn’t president anymore.”
Davis promised a “tight show,” with brief performances peppered by his signature musings and shout outs to famous names in attendance, but as usual the festivities stretched to the stroke of midnight. Performers included veterans like Neil Diamond and newcomers like Maren Morris, and tributes to late legends were prevalent. Jennifer Hudson was called upon to honor Leonard Cohen, while Maxwell eulogized Prince with a rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” (Maxwell improvised lyrics to also acknowledge Whitney Houston, who died hours before the 2012 event.)
The first woman to receive the Recording Academy’s Industry Icon award, Lee predicted “I won’t be the last,” and went on to offer the most pointed political remarks of the night.
“We must persist and say ‘yes’ at a time when we are faced with so many ‘no’s,’ from bans to walls,” she said. “Voices of inspiration are desperately needed to keep us moving, loving, fighting, dancing. I know someone in this room is going to write the next ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ the next ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),’ the next ‘Fight the Power.’ And we need you to.”