It was an emotional evening at Clive Davis’s glitzy annual pre-Grammy gala, held Saturday at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles. While high-energy performances by Neil Diamond, DNCE, Chance the Rapper, and show openers Bell Biv DeVoe had superstar guests up out of their seats and dancing, the more serious moments, courtesy of Judy Collins and Mary J. Blige, are what made the veteran music executive’s party a truly memorable affair.
Collins’s performance was a salute to 73-year-old fellow folk-rock icon (and longtime Davis party regular) Joni Mitchell, who suffered from a brain aneurysm in March 2015 but made a rare public appearance at this year’s gala, escorted by filmmaker Cameron Crowe. Davis told Mitchell, “Everyone here is in your debt” before announcing Collins, who took the stage with an acoustic guitar to croon the Mitchell-penned “Both Sides Now” (which was originally recorded by Collins in 1967; Mitchell released her own version in 1969). Before Collins performed, she spoke of Mitchell’s contributions to the counterculture movement of the 1960s, and noted that Mitchell’s music is needed now more than ever.
“We made a huge, enormous difference [in the ’60s], and Joni’s music lit up our lives,” Collins said. “You know, on Nov. 7, it seemed that we were living in that world of innocence and beauty and hope and joy, and the next day, it seemed that we were in the Dark Ages. And Joni’s music lifted us in the ’60s, and it will and has and will continue to do so, as we go back and perhaps just continue being active, being aware, doing everything that we can to bring us back to our senses — and to never, ever let tyrants and bullies anywhere, in or out of the government, rule our lives.”
Collins wasn’t the only person to get political Saturday. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also spoke, although her comments were more comical and carefree. “Thanks for having me follow Bell Biv DeVoe. I mean, really?” she quipped.
“All roads lead to music. It’s fitting that President Obama chose to unwind with Richard Branson — you know, founder of Virgin Records — after leaving the White House,” Pelosi said, referring to Obama’s recent vacation on Branson’s private Moskito Island. “Did you see those photos of President Obama enjoying kitesurfing? I think President Obama is the only person who is happy that Obama isn’t president anymore!” Pelosi also quoted some defiant lyrics from “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, MusiCares’ 2017 Person of the Year, then diplomatically declared: “Arts have a unifying effect to bring people of different points of view together.”
The final political statement of the night came from BET president Debra Lee, the first woman to ever receive the gala’s Grammy Salute to Industry Icons Award. Lee capped off her acceptance speech with: “At BET, we are saying ‘yes to us,’ and it’s something we all should be saying loudly. We must persist and say ‘yes to us’ at a time when we are faced with so many no’s from growing economic, religious, racial, gender, and sexual orientation barriers, bans, and walls.”
However, perhaps the most emotional highlight of the night was a personal, not political, statement: a stupendous, and extremely raw and courageous, performance by R&B diva Mary J. Blige. “I look happy, somewhat, but I’m going through some horrible stuff right now. It’s called a divorce,” Blige bluntly told the crowd. (Blige filed for divorce from her longtime husband and onetime manager, Martin “Kendu” Isaacs, in July 2016.) “We don’t expect to be here — but here I am.”
Blige then tore into her new breakup ballad “Thick of It” and the gut-wrenching classic “No More Drama,” leaving absolutely everything on the stage as she howled, roared, fell to her knees, and eventually ended her second song lying down, seemingly spent.
The room erupted in a massive standing ovation. Afterward, Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, stepped up to the podium and went “off-script for a moment,” telling her: “Mary, you know everyone in this room loves you. We are behind you and we love you to death and will do anything to help you.”
Other somber moments included Jennifer Hudson’s stunning tribute to the late Leonard Cohen with “Hallelujah” and Maxwell’s tribute to Prince, during which he reprised his “Nothing Compares 2 U” performance from the 2016 BET Awards but added a line about Whitney Houston. (“It’s been five years since this day, since you took your music away.”) Houston drowned to death in a suite at the Beverly Hilton just hours before Davis’s pre-Grammy gala on Feb. 11, 2012.
And, in other, happier divorce news, on/off couple Wiz Khalifa and Amber Rose, who married in 2013 and split in 2014, seemed to be very much on again, walking the red carpet together and engaging in PDA throughout the night. At one point, the room’s video screens even captured Khalifa sensually massaging Rose’s earlobes, which elicited giggles from the audience.
Other lighthearted moments included vivacious performances by Joe Jonas’s new funk-pop band DNCE (with bassist Cole Whittle sprinting through the audience while Joe’s younger pop-star brother Nick looked on), Best New Artist nominees Chance the Rapper and Maren Morris, and Best Rock Album Grammy nominees Panic! at the Disco. Neil Diamond refrained from making his own political statement with his famous pro-immigration anthem “America,” instead simply closing the show with “Love on the Rocks” and two crowd-rousing renditions of “Sweet Caroline,” assisted by American Idol alumnus Allison Iraheta on backing vocals.
Guests at Davis’s bash included Beck, LL Cool J, Diddy, Lena Dunham, Jane Fonda, David Foster, Barry Gibb, Berry Gordy, Kathy Griffin, Melanie Griffith, Halsey, Herbie Hancock, Paris Jackson, Kris Jenner, John Legend, Lorde, Max Martin, Lea Michele, Gene Simmons, Russell Simmons, Britney Spears, Ringo Starr, Stephen Stills, Diane Warren, will.i.am, Paul Williams, Stevie Wonder, and “Weird Al” Yankovic.