There is exactly one person on earth who could be serenaded on his 90th birthday by (in order) Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Dionne Warwick, Kenny G, Art Garfunkel, Earth Wind & Fire, Bruce Springsteen and Alicia Keys — and have the whole evening capped off by a brilliant Mark Ronson-helmed “megamix” of great songs from across that birthday boy’s 60-plus-year career. The answer is so obvious we’re not even going to bother.
Yes, Clive Davis’ 90th birthday party, held Wednesday night at the memorably named Cipriani South Street at Casa Cipriani in Lower Manhattan, was truly one for the ages. With around 600 guests and low-key performances, it was more intimate and not as large and elaborate as his pre-Grammy galas — well, relatively speaking, anyway. It was still the kind of event where you’re getting slightly annoyed at the person blocking the doorway until you realize it’s Martha Stewart; or you see a group of people coming up the stairs that includes Bernadette Peters, Tony Danza, Fran Drescher and Suzanne Somers; or you realize the two people in front of you who are about to effusively greet and embrace each other are Barry Manilow and Kenny G.
In addition to the above, the by-no-means-complete list of people Variety spied over the evening includes Lin Manuel Miranda, Jesse Jackson, Katie Couric, Little Steven, Wyclef, Katie Couric, Swizz Beatz, Tamron Hall, Busta Rhymes, Judy Collins, Diane Warren, Paul Schaffer, Peter Asher, Jimmy Jam, Jimmy Iovine, Valerie Simpson and what appeared to be the entire extended Davis clan. There was also, as always at Clive parties, a living power list of music-industry titans, far too many to list.
Davis himself was more of a guest of honor than his familiar hosting role, appearing onstage only for a 10-minute Q&A led by CBS News anchor Gayle King — although we are delighted to say that he enthusiastically mentioned Variety‘s expansive tribute article, which published that morning. Most of what was discussed during the Q&A will be familiar to anyone who knows Clive’s history, but the last question was revealing and more than a little touching: King asked Davis what he might change about himself if he could, and he said he’d be happier if he didn’t worry so much. Empathy isn’t an emotion one naturally feels for extremely powerful people, but the moment did make you realize just how much — and how many people — the man has carried on his back during his 90 years on earth.
A series of tribute speeches followed, from Davis’ sons Fred and Doug; from his grandsons; from Sony Music chairman Rob Stringer — who referenced Clive’s title as chief creative officer and said “he has that role for life”; from Whitney Houston’s sister-in-law Pat Houston; from Clive’s longtime executives Charles Goldstuck and Richard Palmese; and producer/songwriter and Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr., whose musician dad Clive signed (and who’s known him since he was a child).
After a break for dessert and more hobnobbing, the performances began. Barry Manilow sat down at the piano, told a few stories and played a loose medley of some of his hits — including a couple of commercial jingles he wrote in his pre-fame years that were ubiquitous in the ‘70s.
He was followed, rather surreally, by Patti Smith, which is as good a testament to Davis’ amazingly wide-ranging musical legacy as anything. She spoke lovingly to Davis, then recited the lyrics to her 1988 song “People Have the Power” before singing a rousing version of “Because the Night,” accompanied by a pianist.
Next up, Dionne Warwick sang “That’s What Friends Are for,” accompanied by Kenny G, who played a brief solo beside Clive’s table before joining Warwick onstage. Art Garfunkel was up next, and sang a snippet of the original, almost country-ballad arrangement of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Bruce Springsteen, appearing from his home studio in a pre-recorded video projected onto the venue’s several big screens, apologized for not being present but said he was “quarantined” at home — which sounds alarming but he didn’t seem terribly concerned about it; his rep did not respond to requests for comment, but it seems possible that someone on his team had tested positive. He told the familiar story of how Clive rejected his debut album in 1972 because it didn’t have any songs that could be played on the radio, and how he then went home and wrote “Spirit in the Night” and “Blinded by the Light,” and again thanked Clive for the tough love that spawned those now-classics.
He then played the latter song, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. It’s not a song he plays often these days, and it was amusing watching his face as he struggled at a couple of points to recall the knotty lyrics, then burst into a “hey! I got it!” smile as he remembered them after just a millisecond’s hesitation.
Alicia Keys then got up and gave a brief happy birthday speech, and was leaving the stage when someone asked her to sing “Happy Birthday” to Clive — which she did, freestyling a little, and the result must be one of the most beautifully sung impromptu versions of that song ever.
Finally, super-producer Mark Ronson took the stage and introduced his “megamix” of songs from across Davis’ 60-year career. He spoke of how daunting the task was — and how much more difficult it became when he was given the original multi-track tapes of the songs, and how awed he was by what he heard on them, from Simon & Garfunkel’s voices in isolation to what he called the “psychedelic harmonies” of the O’Jays on “Love Train.” The stunning megamix ensued, accompanied by archival video footage of the artists — dozens and dozens of songs blended together, often in fascinating juxtapositions, ranging from the Byrds to Barry Manilow, from Barbra Streisand to Taylor Dayne and beyond. We’ve already started lobbying Sony to release it.
However, when the festivities crossed the six-hour mark at 12:30 a.m., we called it a night.
This morning, we texted a friend who’d stayed until the end, asking if we’d missed anything… and we had: When the megamix got to Alicia Keys and Busta Rhymes’ hits, both jumped up and sang along …