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Clive's pre-Grammy party: Whitney Houston returns, Kelly Clarkson shows sass

February 8, 2009 | 10:31 am

Whitney_houston_kequs6nc_35 Suddenly there she was, after all this time.

Whitney Houston walked onstage at the end of Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy gala at the Beverly Hilton on Saturday in a leopard-print corset dress and a coat that made her look a bit like a big cat -- her hair a nimbus of curls, her smile a tolerant mask.

She didn’t waste time warming up with a minor hit. The big band’s flourishes signaled the start of her signature ballad, “I Will Always Love You.”

Everyone -- the entertainment business moguls schmoozing their way through this Grammy weekend; the stars for whom this annual fete is a way of renewing their membership in the glamour club, including Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia and Jamie Foxx; and even the servers still filling wine and water glasses -- stopped to listen. But Houston did not milk the moment. She simply sang, strongly but without melodrama. And before the high notes could challenge her, she moved on, switching to her 1983 hit “I Believe in You and Me,” the scariest part of the night behind her.

The rumor that the singer would appear at Davis’ party had solidified during rehearsals for the event, when Davis himself confirmed it to MTV. It was the latest scene in the story of pop’s most famous Henry Higgins and his wayward protégée, a woman who’s struggled with drugs and a disastrous marriage to the singer Bobby Brown, but who is finally back and ready to fight for her spot at center stage.

Houston’s short set, which also included her hip-hop-flavored “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay” and “I’m Every Woman,” a cover song that’s been part of her repertoire forever, enraptured the crowd. Hudson and Fantasia hugged the stage, waving their arms in testifying fashion. Foxx caught the whole thing on his camcorder.

Was Houston’s appearance worthy of the crowd’s joyous reception? On one crucial level, yes, though the voice that once seemed able to topple mountains had grown more subdued, and the high notes just weren’t there.

Houston, who had grown disturbingly thin in recent years, looked healthy. Most of her recent performances have happened outside the U.S., and the press reports haven't always been kind. Last night, she hit her cues and delivered the songs with confidence. This felt like the beginning of something, not its climax: a tentative though friendly rapprochement with the diva role Houston once defined.

Now in her 40s, she may simply never regain the astonishing range and power of her youth. Onstage, she seemed to be working on ways  to sing distinctively though those natural gifts have slightly dimmed. The performance was enough to inspire hope that her next step won’t be disastrous.

Comebacks formed a defining arc within the long show.

There were older artists whose careers Davis had helped revive -- Rod Stewart, who opened the show, and Barry Manilow, who crooned a cute jingle he’d penned for Davis after performing a reverb-drenched duet with Hudson. There was the “Dreamgirls” star, who’s been dubbed a heroine this Grammy weekend for putting aside her grief for the several family members who were murdered last October and returning to the stage. She sang her own single, “Spotlight,” with focused feeling.

There also was Kelly Clarkson, whose disagreement with Davis and her record label about her under-appreciated 2006 rock album, “My December,” seems to have been wholly forgiven now that her candy-sweet new single, “My Life Would Suck Without You,” is selling like crazy. Clarkson showed characteristic sass pushing that song, but she still burns a torch for harder music: She really got down performing a song Davis brokered in an earlier era, Janis Joplin’s classic rocker “Piece of My Heart.”

Sean “Diddy” Combs presented his own kind of resurrection when he and Faith Evans performed “I’ll Be Missing You,” the 1997 song they recorded as a tribute to the late rapper Biggie Smalls. (Evans is Biggie's widow and a notable singer in her own right.)  As the executive producer of “Notorious,” the new biopic about Smalls that is proving a box-office success, Diddy has good reason to revive memories of his old friend now. His performance was ebullient and sincere.

With several of his other young favorites on the bill, including Leona Lewis, Josh Groban (pinch-hitting for Usher, absent due to a family emergency), and the steamy rock band Kings of Leon, Davis must have himself felt some kind of renewal. The 76-year-old executive could have easily seen this evening go the other way.

Last year, he saw his job title change from chairman and CEO of the Sony BMG conglomerate to the more peripheral "chief creative officer." And after three decades, he’s turned over the reins of this party to the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, making it an official pre-Grammy bash.
The Recording Academy handled the transition gently, awarding its annual Salute to Industry Icons Award to Davis and allowing him to remain in his role as a lovably long-winded emcee. In turn, Davis shared the microphone with other power players: academy President and CEO Neil Portnow, producers L.A. Reid and Babyface and artists Foxx and Kanye West.

Perhaps the underlying transition was what made this evening feel so much like a warm family reunion. Never does a strong patriarch earn so much love as when he’s stepping aside a bit (though not entirely; Davis would never do that) and making more room for the next generation.

In this context, Houston’s longtime status as a prodigal daughter seems more poignant than ever. Back in the flock, she'd definitely been marked by her time away, but seemed ready to take up her load and work.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Dan Steinberg / Associated Press

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