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Clive Davis' pre-Grammy gala: A few high points before crowd makes early night of it

January 31, 2010 |  1:04 pm

A massive cloud of stardust made its annual descent on the Beverly Hilton on Saturday, as the entertainment-industry elite gathered for the annual pre-Grammy party hosted by music mogul Clive Davis. Now officially sanctioned by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and dubbed the "Salute to Industry Icons," the bash remains an elite affair, an evening of A-list artists performing for their peers.

Major acts including the Black Eyed Peas, Jennifer Hudson and Carrie Underwood rolled out their hits and very few surprises during the three-hour-long program. An omnibus of celebrities milled about the ballroom, Jane Fonda as well as Jay-Z and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who busted some slick moves while Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas performed “Smooth.”

There was the lingering scent of scandal, a match snuffed out: Rihanna attended, returning to the site where her troubles with former boyfriend and assailant Chris Brown began last year. She seemed resolute and relaxed strutting around in an ornithological dress by Viktor and Rolf, and palling around with It Couple Katy Perry and Russell Brand. Her contemporaries were present, including Keri Hilson and Taylor Swift, as were her elders, such as Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock. She quietly, if showily, fit in.

SLASHFERGIE It was another official Night to Remember. Yet despite a showstopping appearance by Mary J. Blige and other performances of note from Harry Connick, Jr. and Maxwell, the event didn’t hold its audience. Many famous faces exited just before midnight; by the time Jamie Foxx came out to close the show less than an hour later, the venue was perhaps one-third full.

The rapid loss of heat affected the impact of what was happening onstage. Hudson’s heartfelt two-song tribute to Barbra Streisand (who stayed to witness the honor) didn’t bring down the house the way her post-“Dreamgirls” appearance had a few years previous. Thomas and Santana were lively, but the empty seats before them suggested the fading moments of a wedding reception.

Why did this happen? There were other parties to attend, for one thing. The Roots and Ne-Yo both hosted late-starting events; in fact, the R&B crooner was part of that big-name exodus.

Davis, whose introductions and acknowledgment speeches were characteristically ceaseless and constant, cracked about those who’d fled, saying they didn’t have the staying power of a previous generation. He could be right. Focused on their hand-held devices, many partygoers never seemed completely in the room. The performers noticed: As the Black Eyed Peas did their usual frenetic awards-show mini-set (joined by Slash on Fergie's now-standard rendition of "Sweet Child O' Mine") will.i.am paused to say that a Silicon Valley crowd would probably have been more enthusiastic.

The show also lacked the paradoxical element that has so often made this party memorable: a highly anticipated surprise. Davis has used this event to debut new artists, including Hudson and Leona Lewis, or to unite pop titans in spontaneous collaboration. This year, the unkempt ingenue Ke$ha filled the newcomer slot; her turn invoked not history in the making, but the return of MTV’s “Total Request Live.” And though Connick and Carrie Underwood were fine with their duet of Sammy Cahn's "All the Way," it was Holiday Special stuff, more sweet than hot.

The truth is that, in many ways, mass entertainment has become one continuous special event. There are so many awards shows, tributes, specials and one-night-only pairings, how could any thrill?

Mary J. Blige did so, despite the odds. The R&B queen pulled out all the stops to honor her mentor Doug Morris, the Universal Music Group CEO who received the night’s Icon award. She began with some low-level diva attitude ("Are we rehearsing, or do we have it together?" she snapped to the fine house band led by Rickey Minor). Then she wailed, soared and testified her way through Morris’ personal request, “No More Drama,” and “I Can See in Color,” her Academy Award-worthy song from “Precious.” Hugging the piano at one point and nearly collapsing against it at another, Blige gave the kind of performance that demands everyone’s full attention. Those in the crowd, still capacity at that point, lifted their eyes from their smart phones and stood for her.

-- Ann Powers

Photos, from top: Mary J. Blige in an emotional performance. Fergie and Slash were underwhelmed by the crowd's reaction. Credit: Gina Ferrazzi / Los Angeles Times


Clive Davis pre-Grammy party photo gallery