In 1976, record label chief Clive Davis faced a strictly pragmatic question.
Singer Barry Manilow had just scored the first Grammy Award nominations for Davis’ fledgling Arista Records label — including a record-of-the-year nod for his hit single “Mandy” — and the two thought they should celebrate the achievement. But how?
“We knew every other record company would be having its own Grammy party after the awards ceremony,” Davis said. “I told Barry, ‘If we have it at Chasen’s, we might be able to fill one or two tables’ ” with guests who weren’t committed to other post-Grammy events.
FULL COVERAGE: Grammy Awards 2016
So Davis came up with an idea: a celebratory dinner on the night before the awards, when guests wouldn’t be forced to choose between their own events and his.
“Stevie Wonder, John Denver and Elton John showed up, and at that point, I knew I was on to something,” Davis said.
Forty years later, Davis’ annual party, known officially as the Clive Davis and Recording Academy pre-Grammy Gala, has become a tradition. It’s typically a star-studded evening of performances by established stars as well as a launchpad for aspiring musicians to take the spotlight before a crowd of nearly 1,000 producers, managers and executives from all corners of the entertainment industry.
Earlier this week Davis was busy mapping out plans for this year’s event, which takes place Sunday night in the same spot it’s been held in recent years, the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.
From his luxury hotel suite overlooking Wilshire Boulevard, Davis, wearing a black sweater over a black shirt with a polka-dot tie, presided over a command center that included a remote control unit for the audio-video system set up surrounding the fireplace.
Stevie Wonder, John Denver and Elton John showed up, and at that point, I knew I was on to something.
In addition to fielding calls dealing with various aspects of the Sunday night party, he also was reviewing materials from a young singer, Avery Wilson, a contestant from NBC’s reality singing competition “The Voice.” Davis, who is now chief creative officer for Sony Music Entertainment, name-checked a handful of people he’s invited to this year’s party: Quincy Jones, Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx, Ryan Seacrest, Lenny Kravitz and Meghan Trainor.
Those are in addition to previously announced guests including Justin Bieber, U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), actors Jane Fonda, Michael Keaton and Sylvester Stallone, Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons and musicians Christina Aguilera, Alice Cooper, Beck, Dave Grohl, Diplo and Pink.
Marking the event’s 40th anniversary this year, Davis reflected on highlights from years past, recalling one year when the fire marshal announced just before curtain time that the room was overcrowded and attendees would have to be redistributed to meet fire code requirements.
“I thought people would start leaving, but then Robin Williams stood up and did 30 minutes of his brilliance while the tables were rearranged and saved the evening,” Davis said.
Click through the gallery to see some of the top Grammys 2016 winners and nominees including Taylor Swift, the Weeknd and Ed Sheeran. Make sure to check out The Times’ complete Grammys coverage.(From left: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times; Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times; Matt Sayles / Invision / AP)
WINNER: Album of the year, pop vocal album and music video; NOMINATED: Record of the year, song of the year, pop solo performance, pop duo/group performance.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
WINNER: Record of the year and Pop duo/group performance; NOMINATIONS: Pop vocal album(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
WINNER: Best New Artist(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
WINNER: Rock song, rock performance and alternative music album; NOMINATIONS: Album of the year.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
WINNER: Song of the year and pop solo performance. NOMINATIONS: Record of the year, album of the year.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
WINNER: rap album, rap performance, rap song, rap/sung collaboration, and music video; NOMINATED: album of the year, song of the year.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
WINNER: R&B performance, urban contemporary album; NOMINATIONS: Record of the year, album of the year, pop solo performance, R&B song, and song written for visual media.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
WINNER: R&B song and R&B album; NOMINATIONS: Record of the year.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
WINNER: Country solo performance, country album; NOMINATIONS: Album of the year, country song.(Jenna Schoenefeld / For The Times)
NOMINATIONS: Rap performance, rap/sung collaboration, rap song and rap album(Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times)
NOMINATIONS: Pop duo/group performance, pop vocal album, rock performance and rock song(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Nominations: Rap performance, rap/sung collaboration and rap album(Christopher Polk / Getty Images for A+E Networks)
WINNER: Country duo/group performance; NOMINATIONS: Country album.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
NOMINATIONS: New artist and country album(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
NOMINATIONS: R&B performance and R&B album(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
He recounted with considerable fondness one year when he decided to turn the show into a tribute to Aretha Franklin — without her knowledge. After performers including Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole and Toni Braxton sang some of Franklin’s signature hits, Davis walked to the edge of the stage and held out a microphone to Franklin herself, who came onstage and delivered a rendition of her 1967 hit “Respect” that generated a standing ovation.
“I was basking in people’s reactions to her incredible performance, and I realized I hadn’t said anything to Aretha. She had left the party about 15 minutes after she sang. The next day, at the Grammy ceremony, I happened to be walking into Radio City Music Hall at the same moment she arrived. I said, ‘Aretha — last night, oh, my God.’ And she said ‘Clive — last night, oh, my God, the lobster was the best I’ve ever eaten,’” he said with a laugh.
Looking back over the previous year in the music business, Davis immediately cited the success of Adele’s “25" album, which has sold more than 8 million copies in the U.S. in less than three months after it was released.
Rather than viewing it as an anomaly in the ever-shrinking world of recorded music sales, Davis said, “It’s a sign of encouragement. It shows that people still want to hear a great voice. They still want to hear great songs, and they will listen to a full album if the music is great. And they will buy that album,” he said, referring to the record-setting sales “25" has logged after her record company decided to withhold it from music streaming services.
“Streaming is up,” he said. “Yes, we do need the next Bob Dylan, we need the next [Bruce] Springsteen, and we need the next round of great R&B artists. But music has never been more important in people’s lives.”