When Clive Davis formed Arista Records in 1973, the label lacked the renown of its competitors. To level the playing field and heighten Arista’s profile during Grammy season, Davis used not just his business acumen, but his love of showbiz — and the spotlight — to promote his new venture. Clive’s annual Grammy party, held on the Saturday night before the awards in five-star hotel ballrooms, became the industry’s most exclusive and storied bash.
The Clive Davis and Recording Academy Pre-Grammy Gala, as it’s now officially known, turns even the most jaded A-lister into a gushing fan, packed with breakthrough performances and intimate sets from Hall of Famers. When the music stops, top executives get to clink Champagne glasses with a dizzying array of stars and moguls culled from Hollywood, fashion, media, sports and business.
Perhaps most of all, the gala is inextricably linked with Davis’ greatest artist, Whitney Houston. For two decades, Houston reigned as queen of the ball; then, just hours before she was set to attend the 2012 event at The Beverly Hilton Hotel, she died upstairs in her hotel room, from a heart attack brought on by years of drug use. That show famously went on, as it will this year, and who knows how many more, as Davis, now 82, shows little sign of slowing down. The gala, taking place Feb. 7, remains distinctly his creation, as these interviews with nearly three dozen longtime party-goers — artists, colleagues and celebrities — bear out.
I. “LIKE THE GRAMMYS, BUT MORE FUN:” THE BEGINNINGS OF THE GALA
Elliot Goldman (former VP, Arista Records): Clive and I formed Arista Records in 1973 — the halcyon days of the music industry. One of our first releases was from a gentleman you’ve probably heard of, Barry Manilow.
Clive Davis (chief creative officer, Sony Music Entertainment; founder, Arista and J Records): In 1975, Barry received two Grammy nominations for his second album, which was actually the first record Arista put out. He said to me, “Clive, we have to celebrate!” But we were a brand new company, and I didn’t want to compete with other labels having their post-Grammy parties. We might fill two tables at Chasen’s, but not much more than that.
Tom Ennis (former VP, Arista): Clive often referred to Oscar parties thrown by this great literary agent, Swifty Lazar. He wanted to do something similar for the music business.
Berry Gordy (founder, Motown Records): I did go to Swifty Lazar’s party some time ago. It was totally different. Clive’s has always been about the entertainment.
Clive Davis: Our first celebration was a brunch at the Hotel Bel-Air the day after the awards. When I saw the terrific attendance, I had a great idea: Arista should have a celebration the night before the Grammys. And the next year, that is what we did.
Ennis: There was no competition — a genius marketing move.
Barry Manilow (Artist): There was an ice sculpture in the shape of my album.
Roy Lott (former VP, Arista): Competitors didn’t want to support the Arista party. But as it got more popular, artists from other labels wanted to be part of it.
Lionel Richie (Artist): I’ve never been signed to any of Clive’s labels, but I’ve attended every party he’s thrown as far back as the ’70s.
Goldman: It was like going to the Grammys, except more fun.
II. “WELCOME TO OUR INDUSTRY:” MC CLIVE DAVIS
Tom Corson (President, RCA Records; former VP, Arista and J): “Welcome to our industry.” That’s Clive’s famous opening line.
Clive Davis: I was the Gala’s master of ceremony from the start. I welcome the guests and introduce the artists. I don’t have notes; I don’t have jokes.
Jimmy Iovine (Executive, Apple; co-founder, Interscope Records): I’ve only been to the Gala once, in 2014, when I introduced Clive. He always has somebody say hello to the audience: “Here comes the most incredible person in the world, Clive Davis!” The person that night was me.
Kathy Griffin (comedian-TV host): I just love that moment when Clive gets up there. He’s got the suit on, the tinted glasses, that crazy slow way of talking. I just get a kick out of him saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, Imagine Dragons!”
Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds (artist-producer): If Clive Davis calls your name, then suddenly, you are a player.
Daniel Glass (president/founder, Glassnote Entertainment Group): I wasn’t invited until 1990, when I became the president/CEO of EMI North America. My first year, Clive gave me a shout out: “And tonight, Berry Gordy is here, and this young man, Daniel Glass!” I was sitting next to [publicist] Susan Blond. She was like, “Oh my God! You’ve arrived.”
Charles Goldstuck (former VP, Arista; co-founder, J): The music business is as competitive as any: every day is war between the executives and labels. But that night is about camaraderie.
Diane Warren (songwriter): One night a year, you don’t have to stab each other in the back. You keep the knives on the plate.
Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs (artist; founder, Bad Boy Records): Clive would speak at the Gala like he was talking to the leaders of different countries at a peace summit.
Rob Thomas (artist): Every year, Clive comes out with that big smile on his face. No matter what he’s saying in his speech, no matter who he’s presenting, deep down what he is really saying is, “F— you, I’m still Clive Davis.”
III. “IT’S LIKE PLANNING THE INVASION OF NORMANDY:” THE SEATING CHART
Doug Davis (founder, The Davis Firm; executive producer of the gala): People don’t understand the scale of planning that goes on in order to pull off this party. My father is extremely involved with the details — from the entrées that are served to the choice of linen to every single person who gets invited.
Aretha Franklin (artist): When it was in New York, the gala was at the Plaza. Everything was to the max: sparkling china and stemware, beautiful silver flatware, the napkins, the floral arrangements, everything.
Dionne Warwick (artist): When it was in New York, everybody came exceptionally well-dressed, and it was very cold.
Tommy Mottola (former chairman, Sony Music): I thought the Gala was much better at the Plaza. New York is the epicenter of the earth, and L.A. is the center of “whatever.”
Goldstuck: The seating chart causes more anxiety than anything else. The damage done from people who are dissatisfied with with their seat can last for a long time.
Corson: Working on the party took a few years off my life.
Arnold Stiefel (manager; chairman/CEO, Stiefel Entertainment): It’s like planning the invasion of Normandy.
Doug Davis: A lot of people use their seating location as a measuring stick of their stature in the industry.
Rickey Minor (musical director of the gala house band): I’ve seen people walk out because they’re unhappy with their placement. A-list producers who haven’t had a hit since the ’80s might find themselves seated in the back: “I had all these hits for Clive, and now I’m in the boonies!”
Clive Davis: A big part of the party’s allure is the invitation itself.
Neil Portnow (President/CEO, The Recording Academy): A box shows up, not an envelope.
Stiefel: They talk and glitter and glow. They do all sorts of things.
Warren: I always expect the next one is going to be a talking robot.
Glass: The ultimate one was this ticking countdown clock.
Ken Levy (former VP, Arista): It was the dawn of the millennium – everything was counting down to midnight. So I made a countdown clock leading down to the night of the gala. They seemed like equally momentous events, right?
IV. “CLIVE AID:” THE GUEST LIST
Larry King (broadcaster): I’ve gone to 15 or 16 of Clive’s galas in a row. It and the Golden Globes are the two best parties in L.A.
Warren: It’s like walking into some weird issue of People magazine. There’s Barbra Streisand, Larry King, Donald Trump. Some really random people.
Donald Trump (chairman/president, The Trump Organization): The highest level of society comes to his party.
Manilow: You see these unbelievably famous people you’ve only read about in magazines. Bang! You’re bumping into Paul McCartney. Bang! There’s Nicole Kidman.
Antonio “L.A.” Reid (CEO, Epic Records; former CEO, Arista): Milli Vanilli was the honored guest at the first one I ever went to.
Warren: I was hanging out with Joni Mitchell on the patio. She kept chain smoking. I was like, “Joni, do you think you can maybe not light up another cigarette for two seconds?”
Glass: Princess Beatrice of York told me, “I’d love to meet Mumford & Sons.”
Doug Davis: Vice President Al Gore came when he had a Grammy nomination for the audiobook of An Inconvenient Truth.
Al Gore (former vice president): Clive Davis’ Pre-Grammy Gala is legendary and everyone always enjoys it. Equal parts fun, celebration and excitement, the party draws an array of attendees that cannot be found anywhere else. The Grammys simply wouldn’t be complete without Clive Davis’ party.
Thomas: I was walking to my table and Laurence Fishburne was sitting nearby. As I come past him, he grabs my hand and, in that deep Morpheus voice, says, “Rob, come sit down. We’ve been talking about you. We like you.” Then Gene Simmons comes over. And he hit on my wife for five minutes.
Glass: One year, Robin Williams wound up at my table. He was doing a running commentary on everybody: “This guy is great. This guy is a jerk. This one had no voice…” The greatest comedian in the world did two full hours of schtick.
Dave Grohl (artist): The Foo Fighters, we’re here every year.
Levy: Dave Grohl calls it “Clive Aid.”
Clive Davis: Michael Jackson seriously wanted to attend the party. For two, three years, we would discuss who he would sit with and he would send his security team to do walkthroughs. One year I had the O’Jays performing, and Michael said, “Oh, I can’t wait to see them! They better do ‘Backstabbers’!” But he was in heavy litigation during this time, and his lawyers didn’t really allow him out in public. At the last minute he always couldn’t come.
V. “THAT WAS F–ING AMAZING:” THE PERFORMANCES
Bill Maher (comedian-TV host): Clive always says at the beginning of the evening, “The music will be memorable,” and it always is. My hat is off to him having the authority to get that many giant egos to cooperate – because musicians, God bless them, are egomaniacs.
Richard Perry (record producer): No one knew that he was coming.
Stacy Carr (event executive, the Clive Davis pre-Grammy gala): Paul McCartney? No, I don’t believe he officially RSVP’d…
Doug Davis: Stevie Wonder planned to do two songs; he stayed up there and did five or six.
Jennifer Hudson: The moment that sums up the Gala for me: When I had to sing a tribute to Barbra Streisand while she was sitting in the audience! I was terrified. Later, we sat and talked the entire time.
Portnow: One of Clive’s signature qualities is identifying spectacular female singers – divas. Above all, there was Whitney Houston.
Warren: Seeing her in the ’80s, even that early in her career, you knew she was unarguably the best singer of her generation.
Minor: Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Collins would be there, but when Clive escorted Whitney in, all eyes went right to her.
Branden Chapman (executive in charge of production, The Recording Academy): One year, I looked into the audience and Katy Perry and Taylor Swift were singing every line of “I’m Every Woman” at the top of their lungs.
Hudson: We’d all be looking up at the stage, watching Whitney sing with our mouths wide open.
Clive Davis: In 1994, we turned the party into a tribute to Aretha. It was a total surprise to her.
Franklin: Well, Clive will surprise you, every now and then.
Clive Davis: In 1998, as Santana’s Supernatural album was taking shape, I knew it was very special. I thought, “How do I bring attention to this?” By this time, the party was drawing as much media as the Grammys. So I used it to tremendous advantage to herald Supernatural.
Thomas: Carlos and I went on towards the end of the night, which is always kind of a bummer, because you can’t drink and really enjoy the party because you have to play.
Carlos Santana: We were introduced by the gentleman from Cheers… Kelsey Grammer! We started with “Smooth” and then did Cream‘s “Sunshine of Your Love.” I remember Whitney and Bobby [Brown] looking at each other like, “Shit! This is the way sound is supposed to be!”
Thomas: I remembered when Clive unveiled Alicia Keys for the first time. Now, she’s Alicia Keys, and you can’t imagine never knowing who she is.
Clive Davis: I remember saying to Alicia, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that I am going to invite you to sing at my Grammy party. The bad news is I want you to go on after Gladys Knight sings ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.'”
Doug Davis: Alicia came as a new artist one year and then came back as a headliner the next.
Glass: As much as you want to see Aretha, as much as you want to see Manilow, it really is about who you’re going to discover tonight.
Clive Davis: Daniel Glass will tell you that my putting on Mumford & Sons so early in their career was instrumental in spreading the word, because so many of the key radio people and TV bookers are there.
Glass: They started Clive’s party off, and they stopped people cold. I still remember Katy Perry’s face; Jackson Browne came up to me afterward. Our table was swarmed.
VI. “WE TOOK PARTYING SERIOUSLY:” VODKA & FISTFIGHTS
Combs: The thing that sums up the ’90s is… everybody was rich! Hip-hop had become the biggest genre in music. We were selling tens of millions of records.
Toni Braxton (artist): Puffy was the crown prince of Clive’s Gala. Before he came in, people were a little cautious about rap, but he made them realize they’d judged it prematurely.
Levy: Puffy was the Sinatra of the event. His table always had that “Rat Pack” kind of excitement.
Edmonds: Suddenly the Gala was younger and more ethnic. It became more of a party as opposed to a “gala.”
Combs: Bad Boy was known for having the loudest, most rowdy table at the Gala. We took partying seriously. We snuck in our own vodka.
Corson: There’s the famous story where a guy came in and punched David Geffen at the Polo Lounge brunch.
Goldman: He said something to David — who answered him sarcastically, I’m sure. So Brian popped him. The next thing you knew, David was on the floor.
Glass: You know what was bad? The Sharon Osbourne thing. Wow.
From The Hollywood Reporter: “With Sara Bareilles seated nearby, [Maroon 5 manager] Jordan Feldstein and [Sharon Osbourne] apparently got into a heated exchange that resulted in Osbourne tipping over a plate of food on his lap and throwing water at his head.” (Jan. 28, 2014)
Jordan Feldstein (owner, Career Artist Management): Will I be invited back? I highly doubt it.
Stiefel: Every story about Chris Brown beating up Rihanna begins after Clive’s gala. This party is a world of its own. I mean, it’s the party where Whitney died.
VII. “SO WE PARTY, OR DO WE MOURN:” WHITNEY HOUSTON’S DEATH
King: The most memorable Clive Davis Gala was the saddest: the night Whitney Houston died.
Braxton: I was driving there from Vegas and someone said, “Whitney died.” I didn’t believe it. When I got to The Beverly Hilton, they said, “Whitney passed. Her body is still upstairs.”
Kathy Griffin: This is going to sound like I’m being a big name-dropper, but I immediately emailed Jane Fonda because I knew she was presenting. I said, “What do we do?” She said, “It’s still on; get ready.” I thought, “Well, if Fonda says go, I go.”
Jane Fonda (actor): It was an intense evening. Do we party, or do we mourn?
Carr: I had to tell Clive, which is probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. I called Doug and asked him to go to Clive’s bungalow because I didn’t want him to be alone when he heard the news.
Clive Davis: I got a call from Stacy Carr at four o’clock, the day of the party. I had been with Whitney 48 hours before. She was in great spirits: She wouldn’t be performing at that night’s gala, but planned on attending. We made plans to begin her new album in August. When Stacy called, my shock was intensified by the fact that I had just spent that time with her.
Doug Davis: I was by my father’s side in his bungalow when we got word from Whitney’s family that they wanted the evening to go forward.
Clive Davis: Honestly, it never occurred to me not to proceed.
King: I don’t think they removed the body until 3 a.m. It was just a couple floors up.
Clive Davis: I said to Pat Houston, Whitney’s executor and sister-in-law, “This is Whitney’s favorite party. She would want it to go on.”
Monica (artist): I wasn’t able. I just couldn’t find a way.
Clive Davis: We turned the evening into a tribute to Whitney. Puffy made a beautiful speech on how important it was for the party to go on. And there was Tony Bennett, and a tribute to Diana Ross with Jamie Foxx.
Chapman: At the end of the night, I found Clive and gave him a big hug. I said, “It was appropriate. It worked.”
Stiefel: It was never weird. It was never creepy. You thought you were doing exactly the right thing, in exactly the right place.
VIII. “I THINK HE’S IMMORTAL:” THE FUTURE OF THE GALA
Iovine: I think Clive’s party is more important now than it’s ever been.
Clive Davis: In 2009, we aligned with the Recording Academy to make the gala an official event of Grammy week.
Stiefel: The party hasn’t become any less Clive in spite of other people promoting it.
Portnow: Clive made this what it is, so why not just continue to give him the space to do what he does?
Glass: Tim Cook was there last year. That was so heavy.
Tim Cook (CEO, Apple): I attended last year’s Gala and it was a thrill to meet many of the artists that Clive discovered who have had a profound effect on my life and on pop culture. His pre-Grammy party is a testament to his tremendous impact on music history and a reminder there is only one Clive Davis.
Mottola: It’s a different world now. There are only one or two major music executives that are even left.
Reid: I’ve learned a lot from the gala: mostly, when you’re hot, you’re hot; and when you’re not, you’re not invited.
Iovine: Clive is good for business. He brings a real love of the music industry, a real love of music and a positivity. We need more Clives–there aren’t many people like him coming into the record business.
Thomas: He is the last of a breed. I hope that long past Clive, the Clive Davis party goes on.
Trump: I think he’s immortal. I think he’s always going to be here. And I will be at his next gala – just let Clive know that, okay?
This article first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of Billboard.