Inside Clive Davis' 'Surreal' Pre-Grammy Gala

Clive Davis and Diana Ross at Davis' pre-Grammy party on Saturday.

The sudden death of Whitney Houston on Saturday turned the annual gala -- which the singer was scheduled to attend -- into a somber event full of heartfelt performances.

“Surreal,” “somber,” “strange” – those were just a few of the words being whispered among guests at Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy gala on Saturday night. Many of the 1,200 in attendance had known or worked with Whitney Houston, the R&B star and six-time Grammy winner who was found dead in her Beverly Hilton hotel room that afternoon. The evening’s black tie event was being held just four floors down in the grand ballroom, and Houston had long been a regular of the soiree, usually seated front and center for all of the music industry to see.

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Or perhaps gawk is a better description. After all, Houston’s battles with substance abuse were nothing if not notorious and in fact kept her away from most industry functions for many years.

But Clive’s was different. The Sony chief creative officer was the man who discovered and molded her into a star. He mentored, guided and supported her. And most importantly, he cared, as attendees saw in 2009 when Houston was draped around his arm on the red carpet. Then was a triumphant return to the scene and the stage -- capped off by a rousing performance in 2011 -- that turned out to be short-lived.

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“The show must go on,” said one member of the production team, who pointed to Davis as the person most hell-bent on going through and not canceling the festivities. Indeed, Davis said as much from the stage: “To put it simply, Whitney would have wanted the music to go on and her family asked that we carry on,” he declared before asking for a moment of silence.

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What followed were a series of heartfelt performances from the likes of Tony Bennett, Alicia Keys, Miranda Lambert, Diana Krall, The Kinks’ Ray Davies with Jackson Brown, Jessie J and Pitbull with Ne-Yo, to name a few. R&B singers Brandy and Monica were due to sing a medley that included their 1998 hit “The Boy Is Mine” and their just-released single “It All Belongs to Me” but, after wavering for several hours, the two bowed out of the performance, choosing instead to sit in the audience and watch the show.

A few guests, Taylor Swift and Sharon Osbourne among them, also decided to pass on the kudos-fest, as for those who did come and brave the media and the depression? Like the New Orleans tradition of celebration in time of death, the community banded together in music for one of its own. “This Clive Davis thing is like Whitney and Clive’s baby together,” said Houston peer and label-mate Toni Braxton. “Being here tonight is like keeping her alive.”

Still, even Braxton confessed that the vibe felt “very awkward; it's like a surreal evening,” she said. “You don't know what to say. Should you be happy?”

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According to Diddy, yes. For his time on stage, the rapper-turned-mogul made every effort to remember the good times, telling the A-list crowd, “I sat next to Whitney Houston at the BET Awards, and if you ever sat next to Whitney Houston anywhere, you already know that you were in for a good time.”

It was a sentiment heard repeatedly throughout the night -- from the stage, where Pitbull referenced her love of partying to the outside balcony, where revelers also recalled late-night hangs with the singer.

Positivity reigned supreme for the rest of the fete, which also included an industry salute to Sir Richard Branson and a tribute to Diana Ross, during which the R&B legend herself jumped on the microphone for a couple lines from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

The converging honors seemed disjointed, however, especially as Jane Fonda, who introduced Branson, joked with the entrepreneurial trailblazer, then pretended to playfully yank Recording Academy president Neil Portnow off the stage.

In the end, the salutes felt like an afterthought as a tenable heaviness hung overhead with no one quite ready to talk about it, except Diddy who managed to put it all in perspective. “Today, we didn't just lose one of our fellow artists, we lost an angel,” he said. “Anytime we think of Whitney, we have to remember that positivity that she gave us. Whenever she performed, she would give 5,000 percent. She was not a hater, she was a congratulator -- all the time.”

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin

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