“Will you shut up, I’m talking to Clive Davis!” Rod Stewart jokingly growled at his barking dog as the pup interrupted the British superstar’s interview during the legendary A&R executive’s first of two pre-Grammy galas held Saturday night (Jan. 30).
Sure, the annual event was virtual, which meant celebrity attendees including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Stacey Abrams, Quincy Jones, Cameron Crowe, Carl Bernstein, Don Lemon and Katie Couric got to watch from the comfort of their couches instead of stiff chairs in the Beverly Hilton Ballroom. Plus, with the Grammy Awards moving to March 14 due to the pandemic, the party was held six weeks before the awards instead of the night before, but otherwise, Davis’ yearly celebration felt refreshingly familiar.
And that’s exactly how Davis, Sony Music’s chief creative officer, wanted it. “We’re all going to get together again on March 13 … [but] I kept tonight [because] I thought, frankly, after a very long tough year, we could all use the time to hear some wonderful music and really have a great time,” said Davis, who was hosting from Miami Beach, where he noted it was a balmy 72 degrees. He also turned the evening into a fundraiser benefiting the Recording Academy’s philanthropic arm, MusiCares, which helps members of the music industry in financial and medical need.
Similar to the live event, Davis introduced a number of the A-listers on the Zoom, which stretched into five hours, including Universal Music Group CEO/chairman Lucian Grainge, Sony Music Group chairman Rob Stringer and Warner Music Group CEO Stephen Cooper, along with a slew of other high-level industry executives, including Motown founder Berry Gordy, Republic Records CEO Monte Lipman, Live Nation CEO/president Michael Rapino and Hipgnosis founder/CEO Merck Mercuriadis.
Given that the circumstances didn’t really allow for the level of performances the pre-Grammy gala is known for, Davis re-wrote the Zoom script, picking nearly 20 concert performances — most from the last century and many from artists he had worked with — that he considered among the best of all time, including Bob Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” from a 1963 television performance, the Beatles’ playing “Hey Jude” in 1968 on Frost On Saturday, Stewart’s take on his classic “Maggie May” at a 2004 Royal Albert Hall gig and Beyonce’s spirited version of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” from the MTV’s 2009 Video Music Awards.
While he didn’t rank the performances, Davis did call Whitney Houston’s 1994 American Music Awards appearance — during which she performed a medley of “I Loves You Porgy,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Have Nothing” — “the greatest television performance for any artist.”
Davis then tied in engaging, often insightful interviews with artists and producers about some aspect of the performance he had just shown.
Here are the seven standout moments from the evening:
Chance the Rapper Likes Mike (Jackson, That Is)
Following Davis showing Michael Jackson’s electrifying performance of “Billie Jean” from the 1983 television special, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever — the one where he showed off the moonwalk — Davis interviewed Chance the Rapper about his adoration for Jackson. Even though the rapper wasn’t born when Jackson appeared on the Motown special, he was raised on Jackson. “My parents gave me a lot of Michael nostalgia stuff. I had Motown 25 on cassette tape and I would just forward to Mike’s part. It was magical. I remember doing the moonwalk at talent shows,” he said.
Chance also gave an update on the charity single he and Dionne Warwick are recording, spurred on after the singing icon randomly tweeted the rapper asking about his stage name. “The song isn’t finished yet,” he said, adding that it will benefit non-profits each one runs — her organization, Hunger: Not Impossible, and his youth empowerment program, SocialWorks. “We’re hoping to impact as many people as we can while it’s cold out there.” Warwick was on the Zoom, but didn’t join the conversation.
Even Bruce Springsteen Needed A&R Help
After Davis picked a muscular 1988 Bruce Springsteen performance of “Born In the USA,” he brought on The Boss for a 15-minute interview. Followin] getting signed to Columbia Records, where Davis was president, Springsteen turned in what would become his 1973 label debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. After listening to the album, Davis called Springsteen, “and I expressed overall delight, but I also expressed some apprehension that we might need one or two more friendly radio songs,” Davis said.
Springsteen took the suggestions to heart. “We got the communication back that there was nothing that could be played on the radio,” Springsteen said, picking up the story. “So I said, ‘Well, I love the radio. I’d like to be on the radio.’ I went to Loch Arbour Beach, just outside of Asbury Park, and I sat on the beach with my notebook and my surfboard and I wrote ‘Blinded by the Light’ and ‘Spirit in the Night’ and I would not have those two songs if it wasn’t for Clive Davis saying, ‘Man, we need something we can play on the radio.’”
Jennifer Hudson Throws Down
Other than Jamie Foxx noodling on the keyboards during his interview with Davis and John Legend performing Marvin Gaye’s classic, “Mercy Mercy Me,” the only other performance specifically recorded for the evening was Jennifer Hudson’s salute to Aretha Franklin. Hudson, who will play Franklin in an upcoming biopic, laid down a jaw-dropping medley of “Amazing Grace” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” under a photograph of a young Franklin. It was transcendent over Zoom, which means in person, it would have led to a standing ovation that would still be going.
David Foster Confesses to Being Fired From a Ringo Starr Album
After Davis played the Beatles clip, he interviewed David Foster about the influence the Fab Four had on the mega-producer’s career. Foster said hearing “She Loves You” when he was 13 was a game changer. He went on to work with all the Beatles — except John Lennon — on solo projects, to varying result. Foster first worked with George Harrison on two albums, as the arranger (and musician on 1976’s Thirty Three & 1/3), which he remembered as a “heady” time. Producer Richard Perry hired him to work on a Ringo Starr album and it didn’t go as well. “Richard fired me from the album. He didn’t like the way I played,” Foster recalled. “It was a great ‘a-ha’ moment where you take it in and say, ‘I can do better’ or you fold and go home.’”
Foster, recipient of 16 Grammys, obviously learned to do better, but still didn’t gel with Paul McCartney when they worked together in the ‘80s. “I thought we were going to do ‘The Long and Winding Road, Part 2’ and he had no intention of doing that,” Foster said. “The great artists want to go forward, so we didn’t do too well in the studio … I’ve seen him since and he remembers it fondly.”
Why Barry Gibb Offered Dionne Warwick Her Hit “Heartbreaker”
Davis showed a clip of Bee Gees’ performing “Stayin’ Alive” in 1989 in their native Australia before bringing on Barry Gibb, who forthrightly talked about how disappointing it was for the band when “everyone turned” on them as the disco craze died. But its death led to other opportunities, including producing and writing for other artists, including Barbra Streisand.
Davis and Gibb met for a meal at Gibb’s Miami home with Davis bringing in his vest pocket “an alphabetized, three-page list of the artists on Arista Records,” Davis said. Gibb brought up working together, prompting Davis to pull out the list. “At W, your face lights up and you say, ‘Oh my god, Dionne Warwick’,” Davis remembered.
Ten days later, Gibb sent Davis a demo of “Heartbreaker,” leaving Davis dumbfounded as to why he would give away such an obvious hit. “You’ve got to remember, Clive, that when those songs were written, the Bee Gees couldn’t get on the radio, so we could have written ‘Islands in the Stream,’ and sang it, but I don’t think it would have gotten on the radio,” Gibb said. “And so, we were looking for a way out, we were looking for a different way to reinvent ourselves. Maybe if the people don’t know we wrote the song, maybe they’ll play it.” The Warwick smash 1982 hit reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart.
Alicia Keys Reveals How the Music Industry Works
Another performance to make Davis’ list was Alicia Keys’ Times Square rendition of “Empire State of Mind” from 2016. Davis talked to Keys how she came to be on the Jay-Z 2009 collaboration, but they dove back further to when he signed her in 1998, even though she was still under contract to Columbia Records.
“[Columbia] had no desire to let me out of that contract even without wanting my music. It was completely a conundrum to me,” she said. “I never understood it. I cried hundreds of hours because I felt trapped in a place that didn’t understand me and didn’t know me.” She credited her then manager Jeff Robinson, label executive Peter Edge and Davis with believing she deserved “a chance to not just sit on somebody’s shelf.”
Plus, she added, “I think one of the secrets was [my lawyers] also worked with Columbia, too, so there were a couple of little ways. But, really, you were open to providing [Columbia] with the only thing that would have given them a moment’s pause to think about it, which was some kind of buying out re-pay them for their investment.”
Sean Combs Gets Reflective About Pandemic Life
The Notorious B.I.G.’s performance of “Big Poppa,” filmed during MTV’s 1995 Spring Break, also made Davis’ list, leading Sean Combs, whose Bad Boy Entertainment was home for the late rapper, to join Davis about the formation of the label in 1991 and its partnership with Arista.
But Combs turned reflective when Davis asked him what his life is like during the pandemic. “For me, my life got better because I was running myself into the ground and I wasn’t taking enough time for my family and for myself. It’s really been a blessing,” he said. “I lost [Kim Porter] the mother of my children [in 2019] and the time that [my kids and I] were sequestered together, it helped me to make up for all those years I was on tour and to get closer to my family. For me, it’s been a blessing but really using the time to become a better father and a better person.”
Coming up, Combs said he’s eager to return to making music after stepping away a few years ago. “When I turned 50 … I knew something was missing and what was missing was music … I don’t have a big splashy announcement. I can just say I’m back orchestrating and I’m exciting to see what the future holds.”