Clive Davis… talk show host? Well, not exactly. But this year’s version of his annual exclusive pre-Grammy party — now taking place virtually and in two parts, the first of which was Saturday night — did have, as one change among several, not just performances extended conversations that had the legendary music mogul chatting up a dozen A-list guests: Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Alicia Keys, Barry Gibb, Carole King, John Legend, Jamie Foxx, Chance the Rapper, Sean Combs, David Foster and Rickey Minor. (Davis had a few days earlier teased Variety that the number of featured chats would be “more than three and less than 10,” but if there’s anything anyone who’s attended a Davis gala knows, it’s that there won’t be anything minimalistic about it.)
Most of the chats put up for the benefit of the estimated 2,000 guests were with stars that had previous creative and business dealings with Davis, leading to mutual reminiscing about the exec signing Springsteen in the ’70s, getting Gibb to write a hit for Dionne Warwick in the ’80s and — in the ’90s — helping Combs start the Bad Boy label and buying out Keys’ contract from an indifferent label so he could make her career blow up. But Davis also had questions for the artists unrelated to their careers together. Like, for Stewart: What was “Maggie May” about? In an expertly quick and blunt few sentences, Rod told the story of how he lost his virginity by being pulled by an older woman into a tent for a quickie, which “lasted about three seconds, and I left a nasty stain behind.” Put that in your future Davis gala highlight reel.
Saturday’s gala Part 1 was not all talk and no rock: The bulk of the five-hour invite-only webcast was devoted to Davis introducing videos of what he considers some of the greatest pop performances of all time (none of which were from either the Grammys or his pre-awards parties, with the exception of a Gladys Knight number that did come from one of his parties). The epic show did feature a couple of original performances taped for the proceedings, though — solo piano numbers from Legend and Foxx, and a spectacular full-band secular/gospel medley by Jennifer Hudson paying tribute to one of Davis’ primary muses, Aretha Franklin.
Since the mid-’70s, Davis’ pre-Grammy gala has traditionally been the biggest and most exclusive music industry party, but it was hard to imagine what a virtual version might look like. Under normal circumstances a thousand notables, made up mostly of a few politicians, a lot of superstars and virtually every major executive in the business, would dress up and gather at the Beverly Hilton (succeeding its previous berth at the Beverly Hills Hotel), and the cocktail hour before the show is always the best room in the business. The evening is filled with unique performances — over the years we’ve seen everyone from Beck and Lionel Richie to Brandi Carlile and Alicia Keys — and many spoken tributes and introductions from the stage from Davis himself and other luminaries.
With the Grammys being moved from Jan. 31 to March 14 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Davis decided to double down and hold two parties — one on the original date Saturday night, and another on what will turn out to be the real Grammy Eve March 13, with the first a benefit for MusiCares, the Grammy’s charitable wing, and the second for the Grammy Museum.
Almost everything that would go down at a normal Davis party had its analog in this digital equivalent: The traditionally splashy invitation in the form of a hardcover book was replaced by a classy and well-produced video invite. Working the room gave way to working the Zoom, or at least peering into the muted windows of the many boldface guests. (The show was actually hosted on two different platforms, Zoom and Moment House.) Scrolling through the Gallery View from one’s dining room table, there was a range of guests from Joni Mitchell and Berry Gordy to political or media figures like Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, Don Lemon and Carl Bernstein, all seated at computers at home.
Also spotted, as we roamed the virtual Zoom Gallery like we usually wander the party, were Nile Rodgers, Barry Manilow, George Benson, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Cameron Crowe, Tyra Banks, Herbie Hancock, Dan + Shay, Keith Urban, Gayle King, Rob Thomas, Tony Orlando, Quincy Jones, Diane Warren, Taylor Dayne, Jack Antonoff, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Krist Novoselic, Jimmy Jam and Charlie Puth… plus dozens of executives, up to and including Sir Lucian Grainge and Monte Lipman. The attire: less formal than usual — although: Kudos to Peter Asher for not loosening his bow tie for the entire five-hour show, or the short Zoom after-party that followed
And as everyone does on Zoom, we checked out the people’s homes: Except for Legend’s plush living room and Grammy-filled shelf, the visible surroundings generally were nice but unostentatious — and we were amused to note that, like every TV pundit in America, even Carole King has a copy of Robert Caro’s “The Power Broker” on her bookshelf.
As usual, the show opened with many of the above greeted by Davis, leading with Pelosi (and welcoming superstar Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams to her first Clive party), and then it was into the videos. It began with a 1992 Frank Sinatra performance of “New York, New York” filmed at the Acropolis in Greece, and followed with Michael Jackson’s galvanizing 1984 Motown anniversary performance of “Billie Jean,” where he introduced the Moonwalk. Clive and Chance the Rapper talked about the performance, which took place nearly a decade before Chance was born, though he’s just old enough to wax fondly about his parents’ VHS cassette of the show.
Next up was a clip of a very young Bob Dylan playing “Blowin’ in the Wind” live on a 1963 TV appearance, and then the Beatles’ legendary 1968 “David Frost Show” version of “Hey Jude,” followed by a conversation about it with hit producer David Foster. His presence was puzzling until Clive noted that Foster, who was an in-demand keyboarist and arranger before he became a producer, had worked with three Beatles during their solo careers: George Harrison (good experience), Ringo Starr (fired by producer Richard Perry) and Paul McCartney (that one didn’t work out, either).
Next up was Marvin Gaye performing the social-justice anthem “What’s Goin’ On” live during the early ‘80s, followed by a conversation about the song’s legacy with Legend. Davis brought up the famous story about how nervous the song made Motown chief Berry Gordy before it was released. Legend responded, “I think all of the executives watching have to realize that you have to let your artists make the art that’s in their heart, even if it doesn’t immediately sound like the most commercial thing.”
“I think you’re right,” Clive replied, before noting, “John, I noticed you’re at the piano.” Legend then performed Gaye’s 1971 ecology anthem “Mercy Mercy Me.”
At the show’s midway point came a vintage highlight: Bruce Springsteen, who signed with Columbia Records when Davis ran the company in the early 1970s. After screening a live version of “Born in the USA” from the late 1980s, Davis said, “I’ve waited many years to say this again: Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Springsteen.” The Boss, beamed in from his New Jersey studio, reminisced about how, after submitting his first album to the label in 1973, Davis said it needed a couple of radio hits. Davis recalled that unlike many artists, Springsteen did not get offended by the comment.
“I said, ‘Well, I love the radio and I want to be on the radio, let me see what I can come up with,’” Springsteen recalled. “So I went to Loch Arbour Beach, just outside of Asbury Park, beach with my notebook and, I think, my surfboard,” he laughed. “And I wrote ‘Blinded by the Light’ and ‘Spirit in the Night.’ And if it weren’t for Clive Davis I would not have written those songs.” Davis asked Springsteen if he recalled how he, as then-president of Columbia, tried to get the entire label on board with the newcomer by personally reading the assembled conference the complete lyrics of “Blinded by the Light” — a gesture that Springsteen indicated he did remember, and found both amusingly over-the-top and deeply ingratiating.
Davis also asked how Springsteen feels about the state of the country at the onset of the Biden adminstration. “I remain hopeful, even in the great difficulties we’re facing, that our country can reunite and find out better angels and still find that glimmer of possibility,” Springsteen said. “I think there’s a majority of people out there of good will and can make that dream come true. And that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”
Davis rolled a famous video of Franklin singing “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors in celebration of Carole King, who was seen exploding with joy as she sat in the VIP balcony alongside the also delighted Obamas. “The video for that kind of went viral because I went so crazy,” said King. The veteran singer/songwriter was taken with Franklin’s sartorial choice that night in D.C., almost as much as the Queen of Soul’s superlative rendering of her song: “She walked out in a mink, in the great tradition of… I think it was Mahalia Jackson that was her influence… Of course, when she dropped the mink, that was amazing. A friend of mine who was in the audience closer to Aretha said she actually heard the mink go thud on the stage.” But of the performance, King said, “I was so knocked out from the beginning when she sat down tat the piano, (because) she’s a brilliant pianist… All I could do was watch this woman take the song to another level, and then another level.”
Also up for discussion: an important milepost for King’s blockbuster solo breakout this year, as produced — with a very light, non-interfering touch, she noted — by another party guest, Lou Adler. “This is the 50th anniversary of ‘Tapestry,’ which is incredible, because in my mind I’m only 20.”
There was more Aretha veneration to come. Davis introduced fresh video of Hudson, who will soon be soon playing Franklin on-screen, fronting a band on home territory in Chicago, tearing into a gospel number before taking on her arrangement of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” fronting a wall-sized image of the late soul royalty.
Foxx turned up to recall the first time he performed at a Davis gala, when his musical bona fides might not yet have been shored up. “I came to not just hang, but to show my wares, because I had been trying to get into the business,” the actor-singer recalled. Getting silent laughs from the Zoom crowd, Foxx did an imitation of Davis’ familiar voice, warning: “It’s a very unforgiving room, and you have to be airtight.” Returning to his own voice, Foxx added, “When I do sing, I want to let them know I’ve been waitng to do this my whole life. The mantra in my head is: I’m still a starving artist. I go up there hungry.” And then: “I always know you want this,” said Foxx, cutting to the chase as he rendered “Georgia on My Mind” on the piano.
A video of the Bee Gees performing “Stayin’ Alive” at an arena led to an introduction of Gibb, who was described by Davis as “the mensch of all mensches” for his graciousness in pulling off a favor for the mogul. Davis described how he met up with Gibb and pulled sheets of paper out of his jacket pocket containing the entire Arista roster, in alphabetical order. In his recollection, the Bee Gee read through the entire list until he got to the W’s, then lit up and started gushing about Warwick. Davis considered him mensch-y not just because he wrote “Heartbreaker” in a matter of days for Dionne but said he would produce it at the studio of her choice, not his, befitting her as both a woman and legend. Davis said he still couldn’t understand why Gibb didn’t save it for the Bee Gees, but the singer said it wasn’t solely magnanimous: “You’ve got to remember, when I wrote the song, it was a time when the Bee Gees couldn’t get on the radio,” he pointed out, speaking of the post-disco-backlash years. “We thought, maybe if people don’t know we wrote the song, they’ll play it.”
Rickey Minor was on hand to remember Davis’ beloved Whitney Houston, recalling being her bandleader in the movie for the filming of the “I Will Always Love You” sequence and then, later on tour, marveling at how much longer the singer would let the pause last to build up audience tension and applause before letting a snare kick prompt the conclusion of the tune.
From the sublime to the irreverent came Davis’ chat with Stewart, who talked about his rascally relationship with Ron Wood (“He’s an absolute bloody nuisance, Clive”), shushed his dog (“Would you shut up? I’m talking to Clive Davis!”), and recalled an afternoon in Davis’ Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow in which the executive’s suggestion that he pace a song from a standards album more in a “Fred and Ginger” tempo led to four men spending the next couple of minutes ballroom-dancing.
One of the key proteges in Davis’ career, Keys, remembered singing a solo-piano medley of Jay Z songs at a Davis pre-Grammy gala. “I grew up walking the steets playing his songs on my headphones on the way to school,” Keys said, recalling how she vowed before the party to “take the Jay Z songs that grew me up and put them together and create something unforgettable. I couldn’t wait to blow people’s minds.” In her estimation, she said, “Maybe top performance of my life?”
Fascinatingly, Davis also led Keys down the path of digging back into the legal nitty-gritty from the time that he successfully extracted her from her contract at Columbia Records, which didn’t want to release a debut album she’d made for them but didn’t want to release her, either. “They had no desire to let me out of that contract, even without wanting my music. It was a conundrum,” Keys recalled. “I cried for hundreds of hours.” Therein followed a list of belated thank-yous to lawyers rarely heard this side of a post-trial press conference… and to Davis himself, whom Keys spent a couple of minutes lavishing with praise as one of the great music appreciators in the history of the executive side of the business.
As the five-hour point approached, there was still more: a conversation with Combs about how, as a 23-year-old mogul in the making, he was firstly most impressed with the glory of Davis’ office; a Knight convo; Madonna and Biggie videos; an intimate after-Zoom in which a previously muted Joni Mitchell and her cat suddenly held court at surprising length. What’s left for Davis to spotlight when Part 2 of the gala rolls around in March remains to be seen, but whatever the lineup, it too is likely to end with Peter Asher as the last tux-wearer standing and occasional pajamas popping into the east-coast frames.