“The Clive party” — officially “Clive Davis and The Recording Academy present ‘The Pre-Grammy Gala'” — is beyond question the hottest ticket of the event-packed Grammy week. The guest list is like none other — everyone from Jane Fonda to Metallica — and the performances range from specially anointed newcomers (Alicia Keys famously made her industry debut there) to roof-raising performances from legends like Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin and many others. The performers are generally kept secret until showtime, but the guest list for this year’s show on Sunday — its 40th anniversary — ranges from Senator Nancy Pelosi to Jennifer Lopez, from special honoree Irving Azoff to Diplo.
Do you ever get tired of putting this show together?
Clive Davis: No. The truth is, we’re three days before the party, so the adrenaline is working, the idea of keeping the bar up there, making sure you don’t compromise your standards in order to have a night that people come back for every year. So it’s a responsibility, a challenge [looks at Day], in the same way an artist gets ready with a certain amount of nervous energy, which I think it’s good. I approach it with that vigor and attitude.
Andra Day: I’ve never been to the party before, and I was just telling [Davis] that even as a young girl, the Clive Davis pre-Grammy party was legendary. Walking into the room on Sunday — I feel like I’m opening Pandora’s box, like some world I’ve never been in.
Davis [to Day]: Let me tell you from experience, as well as performing — you love music, you’re a fan, people like Alicia [Keys], Whitney [Houston], they love [or loved] coming whether they’re performing or not. And Whitney, when she wasn’t performing, would just love to watch the red carpet. It’s really a night like know other, and you’ll know why, so just enjoy it and go with it. When you’re at the Grammys, there are 15,000 people there and it’s an arena-like setting, whereas here, it’s a selected group of at the most 1,000, all of whom, whether they come from politics, sports, music, film — love music. So it really is very special and it has a life of its own.
Andra, I assume since you’re sitting here that you’re performing. [Laughter] Mr. Davis, can you give us any hints about who else is performing?
Davis: I can’t tell you about the opening act, but I can just tell you that it will make headlines around the world. We will have new artists represented: Andra Day, Tori Kelly, Elle King. And at the first party, 40 years ago, we celebrated Barry Manilow‘s hit “Mandy” — it’s the one that started it all — and Elton [John] came and Stevie Wonder and John Denver and countless others. [This year], paying tribute to Irving Azoff will be an artist that I did sign in 1972 that Irving [co-]manages, Earth, Wind & Fire. Obviously we keenly feel the loss of [EWF founder] Maurice White, but the [members] Verdine White and Philip Bailey called me and said that Earth, Wind & Fire will be performing. We have a lot of surprises, and I think it’s going to be a night that justifiably does pay tribute to David Bowie and Glenn Frey, and a moment of silence for Natalie Cole and B.B. King and Maurice. And the audience is dazzling!
Earth Wind & Fire became truly great after they signed with Columbia. Do you remember the first time you saw them perform?
Davis: I remember it distinctly! They were opening for John Sebastian from the Lovin’ Spoonful in New York and they were doing a very short set — different from what they envisaged. They were under contract to Warner Bros. and they were unhappy, so we arranged for a very secret audition for me in a studio, unveiling what Maurice and Verdine’s idea was for the future — that combination of soul, funk, jazz, pop, rock. I remember it so vividly. And we secretly signed there, and they were able to get out of their contract. I said after the signing, “They’re so different and so unique, I can’t just depend on a radio record.” And it was the first time an American company had a worldwide convention in London, so I flew them to London to appear before everybody who worked for Columbia Records all over the world, and there was no better way to spread the world than to showcase their talent. The rest is history!
And the bond stays. Here we are now, 44 years later, and the love and respect of it — even though your lives might diverge, you do keep that bond.
Davis: [Years later], it’s amazing, Alicia Keys was under contract to Columbia before me and they weren’t getting along, and I never thought she could get her release but she was able to.
Looking back over the past 40 years, is there any one single moment that stands out the most?
Davis: First of all, the premise is totally incorrect: There is no such moment because there are so many. But I’ll tell you one of them. When it was held in New York it was at the Plaza Hotel, and they gave us the entire entrance floor and we ended up in the grand ballroom. And I escorted, as I am still escorting to this day, Aretha Franklin to the party. I didn’t tell her that after the second number, the concert would turn into a tribute to Aretha. Babyface had written a special song and sang it; Natalie Cole and Cissy Houston and Toni Braxton and Whitney and Gladys Knight all took the stage to song. And after they got to the finale where they all got onstage and took turns singing “Natural Woman,” they were starting “Respect” and I took the mic and went to the foot of the stage and I handed the mic to Aretha, and she knew that she had to sing that song. I remember it was Gwen Stefani‘s first party and Martha Stewart and Donald Trump were there. And the audience started standing up and she took it higher and higher and it was pandemonium and everyone knew they had seen an indelible lifetime performance. And the story has a funny ending: After the show I was taking it all in and people were saying “I’ve never seen anything like it that,” and 15 minutes later I said, “Where is Aretha?” I couldn’t find her. Fast-forward to the next night for a show at Radio City Music Hall, I arrived just before the show started and who by coincidence was there but Aretha, and — I forever tell her this story — I’m there waiting for the gratitude, for the thank you. And we embraced and I said, “Aretha: Last night!” and she said “Clive: Last night! That lobster appetizer was so unbelievable!” [Laughter] But that performance certainly is indelible.
Is there anyone except you who’s been there every year?
Davis: I’ve gotta tell you, the competitors who have been around that along… Until his death [in 2006, Atlantic Records cofounder] Ahmet Ertegun came every year. I can’t remember a year that Quincy Jones hasn’t come. But in the spirit of it, every year I’m knocked out at the number of competitors who come.