In 1976, record label chief Clive Davis faced a strictly pragmatic question.
Singer Barry Manilow had just scored the first Grammy Award nominations for Davis’ fledgling Arista Records label — including a record-of-the-year nod for his hit single “Mandy’ — and the two thought they should celebrate the achievement. But how?
“We knew every other record company would be having its own Grammy party after the awards ceremony,” Davis says. “I told Barry, ‘If we have it at Chasen’s, we might be able to fill one or two tables” with guests who weren’t committed to other post-Grammy events.'”
So Davis came up with an idea: a celebratory dinner on the night before the awards, when guests wouldn’t be forced to choose between their own events and his.
“Stevie Wonder, John Denver and Elton John showed up, and at that point, I knew I was on to something,’ Davis says.
Forty years later, Davis’ annual party, known officially as the Clive Davis and Recording Academy pre-Grammy Gala, has become a tradition.
It’s typically a star-studded evening of performances by established stars as well as a launchpad for aspiring musicians to take the spotlight before a crowd of nearly 1,000 producers, managers and executives from all corners of the entertainment industry.
Earlier this week, Davis was busy mapping out plans for this year’s event, which takes place Sunday (Feb. 14) night in the same spot it’s been held in recent years, the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.
From his luxury hotel suite overlooking Wilshire Boulevard, Davis, wearing a black sweater over a black shirt with a polka-dot tie, presided over a command center that included a remote control unit for the audio-video system set up surrounding the fireplace.
In addition to fielding calls dealing with various aspects of the Sunday night party, he also was reviewing materials from a young singer, Avery Wilson, a contestant from NBC’s reality singing competition “The Voice.” Davis, who is now chief creative officer for Sony Music Entertainment, name-checked a handful of people he’s invited to this year’s party: Quincy Jones, Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx, Ryan Seacrest, Lenny Kravitz and Meghan Trainor.
Those are in addition to previously announced guests including Justin Bieber, U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, actors Jane Fonda, Michael Keaton and Sylvester Stallone, Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons and musicians Christina Aguilera, Alice Cooper, Beck, Dave Grohl, Diplo and Pink.
Marking the event’s 40th anniversary this year, Davis reflected on highlights from years past, recalling one year when the fire marshal announced just before curtain time that the room was overcrowded and attendees would have to be redistributed to meet fire code requirements.
“I thought people would start leaving, but then Robin Williams stood up and did 30 minutes of his brilliance while the tables were rearranged and saved the evening,” Davis says.
He recounted with considerable fondness one year when he decided to turn the show into a tribute to Aretha Franklin — without her knowledge.
After performers including Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole and Toni Braxton sang some of Franklin’s signature hits, Davis walked to the edge of the stage and held out a microphone to Franklin herself, who came onstage and delivered a rendition of her 1967 hit “Respect” that generated a standing ovation.
“I was basking in people’s reactions to her incredible performance, and I realized I hadn’t said anything to Aretha. She had left the party about 15 minutes after she sang. The next day, at the Grammy ceremony, I happened to be walking into Radio City Music Hall at the same moment she arrived. I said, ‘Aretha — last night, oh, my God.’ And she said, ‘Clive — last night, oh, my God, the lobster was the best I’ve ever eaten,”’ he says with a laugh.
Looking back over the previous year in the music business, Davis immediately cites the success of Adele’s “25” album, which has sold more than 8 million copies in the U.S. in less than three months after it was released.
Rather than viewing it as an anomaly in the ever-shrinking world of recorded music sales, Davis says, “It’s a sign of encouragement. It shows that people still want to hear a great voice. They still want to hear great songs, and they will listen to a full album if the music is great. And they will buy that album,’ he said, referring to the record-setting sales “25” has logged after her record company decided to withhold it from music streaming services.
“We keep hearing that sales are down, but it’s important to look at the bigger picture,” says Davis, 83, whose 2013 autobiography, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” became a New York Times bestseller and has just been translated into Chinese.
“Streaming is up,” he says. “Yes, we do need the next Bob Dylan, we need the next [Bruce] Springsteen, and we need the next round of great R&B artists. But music has never been more important in people’s lives.”