Even before Grammy Salute to Icons Award honoree Sean “Diddy” Combs took the troubled Recording Academy to task at the Pre-Grammy Gala Saturday night (Jan. 25), the evening had made its mark as one of the most memorable in the history of the prestigious Clive Davis and Academy-hosted event. Between explosive performances by Beck, Brandi Carlile, Cyndi Lauper, Miguel, Santana, Faith Evans and Lil Kim, plus Davis shout-outs to Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Cardi B, Dua Lipa, Janet Jackson, Ozzy Osbourne, Nancy Pelosi and more seated in the star-studded audience, multiple standing ovations were the order of the evening.
It was fitting that the bombshell evening got underway with a cold open by Beck, who revved the audience with a rousing medley that included “Loser” and “Where It’s At.” Welcome remarks by interim CEO/board chair Harvey Mason Jr. afterward gave a brief nod to longstanding issues that erupted following allegations made by ousted president/CEO Deborah Dugan over the past week.
“Grammy Week is the time of year when music communities all come together,” Mason said, “to celebrate and embrace one another, to reflect on our accomplishments and acknowledge necessary areas of improvement.”
Then Motown founder Berry Gordy sparked laughter during his introduction of host Clive Davis. “Once again, here we are at this always happy event. Seeing so many people you know, care about and love — but never talk to all year.”
From there, it was Davis’ show as he moved back and forth alternately introducing stars coming onstage and those sitting in the audience. As Davis noted, “It helps to know with whom you’re sharing music.”
Brandi Carlile paid homage to guest Joni Mitchell with a cover of “A Case of You” and was later rewarded when Mitchell blew her a kiss. Then Carlile and Cyndi Lauper brought the house down with a rollicking performance of the Lauper classic “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” At one point, Lauper stepped offstage and hopped onto a table where Usher was sitting.
Another of the evening’s early highlights featured legend Carlos Santana revisiting two of his hits: “Smooth” joined by Ryan Tedder and “Maria Maria” accompanied by Miguel and Wyclef Jean. To the audience’s raucous approval, Jean gave a shout-out to impeachment pursuer Pelosi. Also commanding attention was Adrienne Warren, star of the Broadway musical Tina, who performed two signature Tina Turner hits: “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “The Best.” The performance lineup also featured Khalid (“Talk”), Chance the Rapper (“Sun Come Down”) and John Legend (Sam Cooke’s timely anthem “A Change is Gonna Come”).
Those performances were the tasty appetizers leading up to the main course: a musical tribute to the Pre-Grammy Gala’s 2020 Industry icon honoree. From the moment Faith Evans broke into “Soon as I Get Home,” segueing into “Love Like This,” the Hilton ballroom turned into party central. And as other notable artists from Combs’ Bad Boy label legacy emerged from backstage — Carl Thomas, Ma$e and Lil Kim plus Diddy’s son King Combs — each evoked memories and cheers.
After accepting his award from Mason, Combs led the guests in chanting “Bad Boy, Bad Boy” before noting that the evening felt like a dream. “I never thought I’d get to this point where my peers would honor me and show me this amount of love,” he said. “Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart. I’m going to be up here for a second as I follow in the footsteps of Clive Davis. So everybody sit down and relax. There’s a lot of people to thank and since this dream has become a reality, I’m going to take my motherf—ing time.”
And he did just that during an often humorous yet hard-hitting 40-minute speech that chronicled his childhood in Harlem, New York, and subsequent career journey from label executive, writer/producer and artist to entrepreneur (Ciroc, Sean Jean, Revolt) and philanthropist (launching three charter schools in New York). Along the way, he thanked a host of mentors and inspirations from Lyor Cohen, Julie Greenwald and Davis to Quincy Jones, Clarence “The Black Godfather” Avant, Berry Gordy, Andre Harrell and RCA’s president of black music, Mark Pitts, among others. To more audience cheers he saluted Bad Boy artist Notorious B.I.G., recently announced as a 2020 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“So hip-hop, we’re making money now,” Combs continued. “There’s more young cats coming up in the game; more people trying to do what Bad Boy and Death Row was doing. And that was my intention. I wanted to make the world a better place for black people unapologetically first. I wanted to make the change so they could see that we could do something and own something hip-hop gave us hope. Now hip-hop is the most powerful force in the culture and the most streamed genre across the globe. Hip-hop is going to go down in history as the culture that said we need to own our s—.”
Soon after that, the original Bad Boy ended by taking the Recording Academy to task, saying in part, “You all be killing us, man. Hip-hop has never been respected by the Grammys. Black music has never been respected by the Grammys to the point that it should be … You’ve got 365 days to get this s— together.”
Equally as colorful as the evening’s performances and Diddy’s speech were the tablemates and conversations sighted in the jam-packed ballroom. For instance, seated with Pelosi (who at one point was seen chatting with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft) were actor Michael Douglas and Billy Porter; Canadians Robbie Robertson and Mitchell held court at another, while Motown’s 60-year legacy was represented by tablemates Gordy, Smokey Robinson and Suzanne dePasse. Billy Ray Cyrus was seen chatting with tablemates Babyface and Anderson .Paak. Keith Urban and Benny Blanco, both wearing amazing outfits, were heard discussing fashion.
Academy Award nominee Cynthia Erivo wrapped a bow around the nearly five-hour evening with a two-song tribute to Janet Jackson that had guests back up on their feet one last time: “Together Again” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You).”
Stay tuned for Billboard.com’s complete coverage of the 2020 Grammys, including our live Grammys pre-show that begins on Sunday (Jan. 26) at 5:30PM ET.