When that roll is called up yonder, odds are somebody will draft Clive Davis to pitch in with the calling.
Over the last 40 years at the music industry bash he hosts each year on the eve of the Grammy Awards, the veteran music mogul has turned the job of introducing luminaries he’s invited to the bash into an art form all his own.
The way musicians craft a set list to shape the ebb and flow of a concert, with up-tempo numbers to spike the energy in a room and soothing ballads to give an audience the chance to catch a breath, Davis’ performance consists of carefully crafting remarks about each recording artist, music executive, movie or TV star or politician he salutes from his lectern.
Each shout-out consists of a reading of a guest’s credentials and accomplishments, all leading to Davis’ suspenseful reveal of his or her identity.
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On Sunday night at the Beverly Hilton, he even said at one point, “And now, for the final introduction of this set....” before taking a pause between more shout-outs to allow time for some of the musical performances that represent the other half of the raison d’etre for the event.
This year’s mover-and-shaker roster included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Ringo Starr and wife Barbara Bach; sibling actors Jane and Peter Fonda; Chris Rock; Jamie Foxx; Madison Square Garden Co. CEO James Dolan; songwriter-producer Jimmy Jam; rapper Fetty Wap; actor Michael Keaton and his musician-songwriter son Sean Douglas; Joe Walsh; Dave Grohl; actor, rapper and Grammy Awards show host LL Cool J; and Alice Cooper.
Davis, who has headed record labels over his half-century-plus career including Columbia, Arista, J Records, and who is now chief creative officer for Sony Music Entertainment, makes a point of taking one night off from the hyper-competitiveness that normally defines the music business to “come together so we can all celebrate music.”
His pre-Grammy party has been a launch pad for his talent discoveries, most notably Whitney Houston in the 1980s and Alicia Keys in 2000, and Sunday night the newcomers who scored coveted performance slots included R&B singer Andra Day, Fetty Wap, singer-songwriters Elle King and Tori Kelly.
On the flip side, heritage acts including Chicago; Earth, Wind & Fire; Barry Manilow; and Carly Simon took the spotlight, offering up signature songs from their respective catalogs in between still more of Davis' guest introductions.
“That is what this evening is about,” Davis said to the audience of about 1,250, “the new, and the established.”
Because it was the 40th anniversary of the event that Davis began to fete Manilow’s first Grammy nominations for his fledgling Arista label in 1976, the 83-year-old executive included video footage of a 1990 performance by Houston singing “The Greatest Love of All” at Radio City Music Hall.
It was four years ago that Houston died on the day of Davis’ party -- in her room upstairs at the Beverly Hilton -- a tragedy that cast a pall over the typically festive night of music and multiple rounds of congratulatory speeches.
Death also was in the air this year with the spate of high-profile musician deaths in recent weeks including David Bowie, Eagles founding member Glenn Frey, Natalie Cole, Motorhead front man Lemmy Kilmister, and Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White.
Each of them received posthumous salutes by Davis, while Beck teamed with the surviving members of Nirvana to perform Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” early in the evening, bookended by a second Bowie homage from Adam Lambert and fun.’s Jack Antonoff in a rendition of “Let’s Dance.” Singer Philip Bailey, bassist Verdine White and the rest of EWF celebrated their departed bandmate with a typically festive performance of several of the band’s cornerstone hits, and Melissa Etheridge saluted Frey and the Eagles by singing “Take It to the Limit.”
Coincidentally, Eagles longtime manager Irving Azoff is this year’s recipient of the Recording Academy’s Industry Icon award, which in previous years had gone to music executives including Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, Virgin Records and Airlines founder Richard Branson, longtime Warner Bros. Records chief Mo Ostin and Davis himself.
Award recipients are feted during Davis’ party, and Azoff displayed his characteristic irreverence during portions of his acceptance remarks. He also broke down at one point while speaking of the loss of Frey, with whom he had worked and maintained a close friendship with for more than four decades, a working and personal relationship Azoff summarized as “a wild ride.”
He also took the opportunity to give thanks as the first talent manager to receive the Icon award, saying, “A good manager is more important than ever,” and called upon the music industry and political representatives to put more efforts into protecting the value of music.
Azoff criticized laws that he said have been more focused on protecting intellectual property interests of tech companies rather than the content on which many of those companies have made their fortunes.
To introduce Davis, event organizers enlisted late-night talk-show host James Corden, who credited Davis with helping him on his ascent to that career. He noted the skepticism he met in many corners when “I told people I had this idea to ride around in a car singing karaoke, and they would look at me strangely.”
Corden also drew a loud groan when he surveyed the crowd and quipped, “This place is packed -- there are more people in this room than subscribed to Tidal last year,” referencing the superstar music streaming start-up launched last year and backed by Jay-Z, Beyonce, Kanye West, Madonna and other heavy-hitter musicians.
For the most part, guests expressed self-effacing good humor despite any lurking tensions over who will win, and who won’t, at the Grammy Awards at Monday night’s ceremony starting at 5 p.m. at Staples Center in downtown L.A. and being telecast live on CBS-TV.
Nominee Josh Groban said, “My category is [announced] tomorrow afternoon, and I expect to be giving a congratulatory hug to Tony Bennett,” in reference to his pop vocal album nomination in a category with Bennett, Manilow, Bob Dylan and Seth McFarlane.
Making his way toward his group’s table on the floor of the ballroom, Starr, accompanied as usual by his wife, actress Barbara Bach, and brother-in-law Joe Walsh, said with a chuckle, “This is my first time -- I’m feeling a little lost.”
Danny Griffin, executive producer of Fetty Wap’s debut album and breakout single “Trap Queen,” a Grammy nominee for rap performance and rap song, was all smiles as he surveyed the room and took selfies with other members of the rapper’s entourage.
“We were in Philadelphia, but we flew out early to be here tonight,” Griffin said. “It’s our first time at this event. I love the music industry."
Near the end of the night, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow presented Davis with a couple of gifts to acknowledge his efforts coordinating the annual industry love fest, including a framed version of the elaborate invitation that was sent to this year’s guests, and a Gibson guitar with Davis’ image on the back.
“He’ll be back here next year,” Portnow joked, “playing it for us.”
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