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9 Memorable Moments From Clive Davis’ Grammy Museum Benefit With Elton John, H.E.R. & More

H.E.R. Clive Davis Pre-Grammy Gala
Courtesy Photo

H.E.R. plays “Nothing Compares 2 U” during Clive Davis’ Pre-Grammy Gala Part 2 on May 15, 2021.

During part two of his virtual Pre-Grammy Gala Saturday night (May 15), host Clive Davis revealed something he said he’d never publicly shared before: his favorite song.

It’s a question the Sony Music chief creative officer says he gets frequently asked and always dodged -- until now. Turns out he has two: Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

The timing of his reveal was fortuitous, given that Paul Simon was one of the many superstars joining Davis for an interview early in the six-hour marathon event. The gala went so late on the East Coast that some of the viewers changed into pajamas, but stayed logged on, not wanting to miss which superstar was coming next.

Yes, the Grammy Awards took place two months ago, but in the topsy-turvy world of the last 14 months, the sequel to part one of the Pre-Grammy party didn’t take place until now.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Davis’s annual Pre-Grammy gala, traditionally held the night before the Grammy Awards, went online in 2021 and Davis decided to break it into two events. The first edition, benefitting MusiCares, was held Jan. 30, which would have been the night before the Grammys, but the Grammys got postponed to March 14.

Then, the second edition, benefitting the Grammy Museum, was slated to take place on March 13 -- the night before the rescheduled Grammys -- but Davis contracted Bell’s palsy and postponed the event until May 15. Still with us?

Saturday night’s event followed the same template as the Jan. 30 fete: a robust and completely healed Davis highlighted what he considered some of the greatest live performances of all time, interspersed with interviews with some of the artists featured.

Davis virtually welcomed guests from his Pound Ridge, N.Y. home, saying, “When I saw the RSVP list, I was overwhelmed with gratitude, as I read each of your names.” And with good reason. The odd constellation of musicians, athletes, actors and celebrities that attend the event in person showed up online ranging from Josh Groban, Carly Simon and John Fogerty to Tony Danza, Dick Cavett and Martina Navratilova.

A-list music industry execs were also in attendance, including Republic Records CEO Monte Lipman, Big Machine Label Group founder Scott Borchetta, Sony Music Publishing CEO Jon Platt, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., Universal Music Publishing Group CEO Jody Gerson and managers Coran Capshaw and Arnold Stiefel.

Davis added he didn’t know how he would top the first edition, which featured Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Chance The Rapper, Barry Gibb, and Sean Combs, among others, but the wattage shone even brighter the second time around. In addition to Simon, Davis interviewed Elton John, Joni Mitchell, DaBaby, Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor, Dave Grohl, H.E.R., Dionne Warwick, Barry Manilow, Chris Stapleton, Slash, Santana and Rob Thomas, John Mellencamp and Donovan, among others.

Here are nine highlights from the evening:

Oprah Winfrey Shares A Whitney Houston Secret

In 2009, Whitney Houston appeared on Winfrey’s show as part of a comeback effort. During the taping, Houston fell off the stage -- an innocent slip, but Winfrey knew it could seem misconstrued if word got out. While Houston was in the green room regrouping, Winfrey says, “I said to the audience, ‘Audience, you know what this moment means to her, to her career. You know that she is doing her best to come back and start a new life for herself. I’m begging you not to post, do not share with anyone that she fell off the stage,’ and to this day, no one did.” She said. Winfrey added it was the first time she had ever told the story.

DaBaby and Clive Davis Go Deep

Rap star DaBaby and Davis hadn’t met before their interview, but they bonded quickly over loss. The “Rockstar” performer brought up his father, the man he credited with giving him his drive, died shortly after DaBaby’s debut studio album, 2019’s Baby on Baby, came out. “Every year since I’ve been a mainstream artist, I’ve gone through personal tragedies,” he said, adding that his older brother committed suicide in November 2020. “I’m coming off the No. 1 song in the country, I was at the polls doing a voter campaign in Charlotte, N.C., when I got the call, DaBaby recalled, as Davis listened sympathetically, after revealing that both his parents died when he was a teenager. “I jumped straight in a car. I’m no stranger to going through things.” DaBaby, who scored 22 entries on the Billboard Hot 100 in one year, understandably added that the pandemic shut-down finally gave him a chance to grieve his father and brother, adding it was “much-needed” time.

Dave Grohl is a Fanilow

After a clip of Foo Fighters playing “Times Like These” on Saturday Night Live the day Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, leader Grohl joined Davis.

The song “seems to reflect on the things that are important to you, you have hope, you learn to live again,” he said of “Times Like These’s” timeless message. In addition to admitting that Davis once “kicked my ass so hard” during a game of ping pong, Grohl confessed that he was quite the Barry Manilow fan, especially after seeing him perform at one of Davis’s pre-Grammy galas. “I’d never seen him play before and he did [a] medley of 12 of his biggest hits, and I was crying, I was in tears. He blew my mind,” Grohl said.

Two Titans Show Respect

Between Davis and Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., the two legends have nearly 180 year of life experience between them so hearing them during a short conversation felt like a master class. Gordy jokingly called Diana Ross “the little girl with the whiny voice,” adding “ she was so incredible, Motown fell in love with her, including me.”

Gordy said that even though he and Davis were friends, “I thought we were competitors. I created you like a competitor, even though personally I cared a lot about you and always will.”

Davis asked Gordy is he was ever sorry he sold Motown, for $61 million to MCA/Boston Ventures in 1988, and its publishing arm, Jobete, which he sold in two parts starting in 1997 to EMI Music Publishing for $132 million. “I have absolutely no regrets,” Gordy said, but added he had lots of memories, including meeting the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson for the first time. “I remember sitting with Michael and I was trying to teach him how to write songs and then he became way better than me,” he says, recalling that the Jackson 5’s first four singles went to No. 1.

Thank Goodness Paul Simon Didn’t Get Airsick

After Davis name-checked “The Boxer” as his favorite song and showed Simon & Garfunkel performing the tune during their famous 1981 Central Park concert, he asked Simon the story behind the song. Simon said, unlike many of his songs, “The Boxer” was not autobiographical, calling it “a piece of imagination.” I wrote part of the lyrics while I was on a flight on the back of one of the bags in case you want to throw up.” Like many of the artists who had worked with Davis did throughout the night, Simon credited the executive’s iconic A&R skills. It was Davis who insisted that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” be a single, even though it clocked in at nearly five minutes at a time when radio was rarely playing any song over three minutes long. “Of course, you were completely right,” said Simon of Davis’s decision. The song, released in 1970, spent six weeks at No. 1.

H.E.R. Channels Prince

After Davis included Prince’s incendiary performance of “Purple Rain” at the 1985 American Music Awards as one of his top live moments, he brought on recent Grammy and Oscar winner H.E.R. to talk about Prince’s influence. She talked about her father playing Prince’s 1999 concert film, Rave Un2 the Year 2000, every morning and seeing Prince perform when she was 13, before playing a searing version of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” She also revealed that her debut album is finally coming out, but she is also working on a reggae EP. She also has “a lot more acting” coming up, she added, after appearing in this year’s Netflix film, Yes Day, starring Jennifer Garner.

Elton John Doesn’t Let The Sun Go Down On a Song

“I’ve always been drawn to miserable lyrics,” joked Elton John as Davis talked to him about writing the music for “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” He received the lyrics from his partner Bernie Taupin shortly after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road came out. “I wrote it in the morning, sat down at the piano,” John said. “The song is quite wistful. I went into the studio that day to record it, but had a terrible time doing the vocal. I couldn’t get the tone right. [Producer] Gus Dudgeon told me to sing it quieter and them I got it ... I love that song so much, its always a favorite part of my repertoire. The song is about redemption, about hope and coming through the end of something sad.”

John, who is rabid in his desire to keep up with new music, said the thirst goes back to cycling down to his local record shop to buy the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and riding back home looking at the album in one hand and steering with the other. Davis recalled meeting John for the first time over dinner on the 1970s. It was a Tuesday, which was then the record release day instead of the current Friday, and Davis brought John seven new albums that had come out that day. “You opened [the gift] and gently told me you had bought all seven of them that morning at Sam Goody’s,” Davis recalled. “I never knew someone with that intense hunger.”

Though John is eager to get back on the road and finish his farewell tour, which will now likely stretch into 2023, he said he’s enjoying returning to his session player roots, performing on songs with Lady Gaga and more recently, Gorillaz. “It’s kept me engaged,” he said. “It’s challenging, but so enjoyable.”

Thank Joni Mitchell’s Unimaginative Piano Teacher

In a rare appearance, Mitchell talked to Davis about her hit, “Both Sides Now,” a song she says she “grew into,” as well as her musical path.

Looking and sounding great following her 2015 brain aneurysm, Mitchell said she had her piano teacher to thank for her piano style. “When I was seven, I wrote an instrumental called ‘Robin Walk.’” When Mitchell played it for her piano teacher, “she hit me across the knuckles with a ruler and said, ‘Why would you want to play by ear when you have the masters to learn from?’” Mitchell quit and from then on was self-taught. “My style is unorthodox because I am uninfluenced by the masters.”

Mellencamp and The Boss

After Davis showed John Mellencamp’s performance of “Pink Houses” from the first Farm Aid in 1985, he and Mellencamp talked about when Davis passed on signing the roots rocker because he had yet to develop his sound. “It’s a decision that’s come to haunt me,” Davis said, although Mellencamp said Davis made the right move.

At the time, Mellencamp was getting compared to Bruce Springsteen, and now, he revealed, he and The Boss have worked together. “Bruce is singing on the new record and is playing guitar,” Mellencamp said. “I finished the record a week ago today.”

Mellencamp is also working on a jukebox musical, called Small Town that he expects to open in Birmingham, Ala., soon with an eventual eye toward Broadway. The story is about, yes, two kids named Jack and Diane. Mellencamp wrote no new material for the play. “I told them, I have 600 songs published. Surely you can find 12-to- 15 songs that will work.”