A rare public appearance by legend Joni Mitchell. Mary J. Blige’s show-stopping performance of her hit “No More Drama.” Lena Dunham, Lorde and Jack Antonoff vibing to Chance the Rapper. Those are just a few of the unique moments witnessed at last evening’s Pre-Grammy Gala (Feb. 11), hosted by Clive Davis and The Recording Academy at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Fresh off the ratings success of BET’s The New Edition Story, Bell Biv Devoe jumpstarted the three-and-a-half-hour gala with their hit “Poison” for the traditionally star-studded crowd. Introduced afterwards by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Davis singled out four of those stars who, he said, “sum up this evening”: Stevie Wonder, Mitchell, Quincy Jones and Jane Fonda.
Davis did shout out additional names throughout the evening, including Ringo Starr, Barry Gibb, Berry Gordy, John Legend, Dunham, LL Cool J (who politely posed selfies and nearly caused a traffic jam at the exits) and Beck (seen chatting with producer Max Martin). Also spotted in the ballroom: Britney Spears, The Chainsmokers, Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith and Kris Jenner.
Delivering the first of the evening’s several standing ovations was a white-gowned Jennifer Hudson, who delivered a powerful interpretation of the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Honoring the legacy of Prince, Maxwell sang “Nothing Compares 2 U” and dedicated his performance to Whitney Houston who died five years ago to the day.
Best new artist Grammy nominee Chance the Rapper, who brought his mother as his date, ran through an energetic performance of “Angels” and “No Problem” from his Coloring Book mixtape. When fellow best new artist nominee Maren Morris launched into “80s Mercedes” after performing her breakout hit “My Church,” Kelsea Ballerini — also a contender in that same category — was singing along enthusiastically with Morris from the audience.
Paying tribute to BET Networks Chairman/CEO Debra L. Lee — the first woman to receive the gala’s Grammy Salute to Industry Icons award — Blige sang her current single “Thick of It.” But before she sang, Blige thanked Lee for being a strong inspiration.
“Right now in my life, I need strength like yours because I may look happy, but I’m going through some horrible stuff right now. It’s called divorce,” said Blige of her breakup with husband/manager Kendu Isaacs. “This song is exactly where I’m at.”
Next Blige belted out an especially emotional version of her signature song, “No More Drama.” The singer had LL Cool J and Russell Simmons bobbing their heads while nearby Wiz Khalifa and ex-wife Amber Rose were holding each other. Then Blige herself went down on her knees before literally falling out on the stage, at which point everyone jumped to their feet for a rousing ovation.
Upon receiving the award from Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow, a “truly humbled and grateful” Lee talked about the importance of music. “Regardless of the challenges we are faced with, you — the generators of such important art — must know that your light shines brightest in the midst of darkness. Music has power, the power to bring us all together.”
Another emotional moment occurred shortly afterwards when Judy Collins reprised her 1967 hit “Both Sides Now” in tribute to the song’s writer, Joni Mitchell. The wheelchair-bound Mitchell, who suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015, attended the gala with writer and filmmaker Cameron Crowe.
“Joni’s music was part of the ship that carried us, lit up our lives and helped us in the ‘60s,” said Collins, referencing that era’s parallel problems with race, war and other social issues.
After Mike Posner sang his Grammy-nominated song of the year “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” and DNCE weighed in with a rollicking performance of “Cake by the Ocean. Then Neil Diamond brought the 2017 Pre-Grammy Gala to a close with “Love on the Rocks” and a high-spirited audience sing-along to “Sweet Caroline.”
Now in its 41st year, the Pre-Grammy Gala is produced by Clive’s son Doug Davis, an attorney and the founder of The Davis Firm.