Now in its 42nd year, The Clive Davis Pre-Grammy Gala is like an annual version of Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, with a unique mixture of luminaries in the room from the worlds of entertainment, politics and beyond — while the emphasis is on the music industry, it’s probably the only place on Earth where one will find Martha Stewart, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Migos under the same roof.
Like the 2018 Grammys themselves, the temporary move to New York has meant a new venue — in this case the Sheraton Times Square instead of the usual Beverly Hilton — and the opportunity to work a Big Apple theme: Local hero Jay-Z received this year’s President’s Award at the ceremony while Alicia Keys, who grew up just a few blocks away, paid tribute to him with a piano-driven medley of his hits; Brooklyn-born Barry Manilow opened the show with a two-song set including “New York, New York”; and Broadway was honored with performances by “Dear Evan Hansen” star Ben Platt and “Hamilton”’s Leslie Odom Jr.
“Before anything else I was a true fan of your music Jay, and still am,” Keys told Jay, who held court at a center table with a beret-sporting Beyonce and Warner Chappell Music Publishing chief Jon Platt. “I walked down the streets with my headphones on and my Tims and baggy jeans, and your [music] was my soundtrack.” She performed a loose medley of several of his hits, focusing on the hooks but interjecting “unh”s and “wuh-wuh-wuh”s and other vintage Jay-Zisms, wandering through “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” “Hard Knock Life,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Run This Town” and of course their duet “New York State of Mind.”
“When we were making this record we were like ‘Is this to New York?’ and we were like, ‘Yeah!’,” she recalled. “But it represents a lot of hope and possibility too.”
During his brief acceptance speech, Jay recalled boycotting the Grammys early in his career because he felt hip-hop had been slighted, but later decided to work within the system.
“I didn’t come back until 2004 when a beautiful, young lady whom I love dearly had a solo album: the beautiful Miss Beyonce,” he said. “And I realized, ‘Man, art is super subjective and everyone is doing their best. The Academy is human like we are and they’re voting on things they like and it’s subjective.’
“And if we believe in it — ’cause we do, we can pretend that we don’t care but we really care — we see the most incredible artists stand on that stage and we’re inspired to be that, so I was like, ‘I have to be here.’” He continued. “That is the idea for all of us: to get involved and to push this thing further no matter what happens at the Grammys. Bob Marley is going to be Bob Marley, whether he’s nominated for a Grammy or not. Tupac is going to be Tupac, Biggie is going to be Biggie.”
But the evening wasn’t just Jay and New York-themed: Davis announced to the crowd that Jennifer Hudson (pictured above with Davis) had been personally chosen by Aretha Franklin to play her in a forthcoming biopic, and Hudson than came out and delivered a rousing, pitch-perfect medley of Aretha hits including “Think,” “Rock Steady,” “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” and several others (although the Queen herself was not in the house). Luis Fonsi performed a Latin-leaning version of “Despacito.” Gladys Knight played a gorgeous version of “Stand by Me” and then, prompted by Davis, her own hit “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Khalid played his hit “Young, Dumb and Broke” and then closed the night by joining Logic for the suicide-awareness song “1-800-273-8255.”
Elsewhere in the crowd were rumored companions Jamie Foxx and Katie Holmes — called out from the stage by Clive, who told an embarrassed Holmes, “If you’re going to sit together, it might as well be here” — Mariah Carey, Jerry Seinfeld, Pink, Diddy, Sting, Tina Fey, Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes, John Legend and very pregnant wife Chrissy Teigen, Quincy Jones, Cardi B — who danced while fiancée Offset and Migos performed “Bad and Boujee” — John Oliver, DJ Khaled, Atlantic co-chairman Julie Greenwald — who got a big hug from Beyonce as the royal couple arrived — Sony Music chief Rob Stringer, hitmakers Greg Kurstin, Ryan Tedder, Diplo, Benny Blanco, Alex Da Kid, Andrew Watt and Best New Artist nominee Julia Michaels — who told Variety she was so nervous about the show and “probably wouldn’t sleep” that night — Nick Jonas and manager Phil McIntyre (who hosted a party with John Varvatos later that night), New York Yankees Giancarlo Stanton and CC Sabathia, NBA star Chris Bosh, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (who got a genuine Bronx cheer from the partisan audience); attorney, party planner, show runner and one-man welcoming committee Doug Davis, and Grateful Dead cofounder Bob Weir (don’t forget, Clive released several Dead albums on Arista), who saved his performing chops for later in the evening when he jumped onstage with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at The McKittrick Hotel.