By Whitney Pastorek
February 08, 2009 at 12:00 PM EST

The annual Clive Davis pre-Grammy party is a giant star-spackled cruise-ship extravaganza, and last night Whitney Houston was its headliner, anchor, and fire drill coordinator rolled into one. Her presence electrified a room full of people who had just spent three hours eating chicken and downing wine within napkin-tossing distance of Prince — a room full of people who’d already heard stunning performances from the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson, and the man formerly known as Puff Daddy — and when she at last appeared in the Beverly Hilton ballroom, celebrity planets like Jamie Foxx rushed the stage to orbit her sun.

In a leopard-skin minidress and fluffy cape of the Chaka Khan school, Houston revealed she’s back in sparring shape; when she opened her mouth, what came out was strong and controlled (though, admittedly, she was still trading more on the theatricality of our anticipation than the power of the golden pipes she used to possess). So psyched was the crowd that it hardly seemed to miss the big notes in edited arrangements of both “I Will Always Love You” and “I Believe In You and Me,” and the fact that Houston’s backup singers had to carry much of “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” did not dim the dance party. By the time the long-dormant star got to “I’m Every Woman,” the mid-range of her voice was full of confidence, her  body language full of bounce, and the entire music industry was on its feet with its hands in the air to celebrate Houston, as she celebrated the man she called “my father,” Clive Davis.

This was the first year that the Recording Academy officially recognized Clive’s party, which led to what I assume was double the talent — and double the fawning introductions as NARAS president Neil Portnow and Davis traded off at the podium. To be honest, the fawning introductions are kind of the best part, giving the whole thing a nice bar mitzvah/business conference vibe totally incongruous with any rock & roll aesthetic one might muster. Portnow opened the night, describing the event as “steeped in elegance,” and Clive Davis as a “national treasure.” He then brought Bill Maher to the mic, and the comedian did some quick hits on Springsteen’s scrotum-smashing Super Bowl appearance and Michael Phelps’ pot scandal (“Obviously, you can smoke weed and be at the top of your game”) before honoring the man of the hour with possibly the greatest transition of all time: “… the fire marshal had to close down her vagina. Anyway, I’m here to talk about Clive Davis, ladies and gentlemen.”

After all that introductory ado, the man who Maher called “the greatest enabler of music for two generations” at last stepped to the podium, kicking off America’s fastest-growing new game show sensation, Who Is Clive Davis Introducing Right Now? It’s an easy game, and fun to play at home: Someone rattles off a string of compliments or achievements or nonsensical hyperbole (“the next Kenny Rogers!”), then says the name of a celebrity who is in the room; everyone else tries to guess who they’re going to say. Clive’s first three were heart-stoppingly awesome: Paul McCartney, Prince, and Sly Stone, who was wearing a red tartan suit and what looked to be a skunk for a mohawk. At his appearance, the entire room gasped, possibly because no one is ever quite clear on the whereabouts of Sly Stone. And then Clive introduced “the greatest white soul singer of all time”: Rod Stewart, in a less-exciting plaid suit, who brought us all back to the realities of space and time and whose rendition of CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” sent our cruise sailing into the night.

I’d be here all day if I wrote out everything that happened over the course of the evening, plus it would sound like I’m bragging, so let’s just hit the highlights: Kings of Leon doing “Sex on Fire” in a hotel ballroom; Natalie Cole’s introduction spotlight revealing that Sly Stone had already escaped; Davis receiving the President’s Merit Award from Portnow; L.A. Reid hollering at the sleepy crowd to “Make some noise!” and “Say amen!” before getting in on the W.I.C.D.I.R.N? action by introducing Diddy as “an important man”; Diddy and Faith Evans performing a passionate “I’ll Be Missing You” as Biggie tribute footage rolled on the big screens and the cynical among us tried not to see it all as a big ad for Notorious; Diddy reminding us all to “stop and appreciate what we have, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” and then calling himself “the happiest motherf—er alive”; the random lottery of Foo Fighters, Herbie Hancock, Jonas Brothers, Trace Adkins, Wayne Brady, and being acknowledged back to back to back; Clive introducing Kanye West and having Jamie Foxx stand up and wave instead. (“Ooo-kay,” muttered Clive, in his Brooklyn drone.)

The performances kept coming: Kelly Clarkson did “My Life Would Suck Without You” and rather blew the doors off the joint, then reminded us all she came from a karaoke show with a great but unnecessary rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” (P.S.: Brace yourselves for a Jessica Simpson-style uproar about Clarkson’s weight, coming soon to a tabloid near you.) That left Jennifer Hudson — who not only looks but seems great in the wake of the tragedy that struck her family last fall — to knock everyone’s socks off with “Spotlight,” then sit on Barry Manilow’s piano bench and save “Weekend In New England” from itself, and us from “Weekend In New England.” Trust me: Were Whitney Houston not last night’s climactic scene, everyone would have walked away from the party talking about Jennifer Hudson, and word from inside rehearsal at Staples this morning is that she’s gonna bring this Grammy telecast to its knees.

Sadly, I took the end of J-Hud’s performance as the right moment to go outside and look for Slash — that’s not a euphemism, I really did want to find Slash; he was lounging on the balcony but ran away before I could talk to him — and so accidentally I missed Kanye taking the mic and delivering a rambling apology for being a jackass. This, I regret. Apparently, he used the word “humbled.” Again, I will regret not hearing this for the rest of my days. But though I’m almost certain it was his intention, not even Kanye could steal the night’s prime focus away from Houston, and by the time Clive Davis had finished introducing every single person he knew who was currently in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton and Houston finally appeared and Ricky Minor and the band started up those first notes of “I Will Always Love You,” nothing mattered anymore but the sight of the greatest pop diva in pop diva history reclaiming her rightful place at the top of her game. Well. Okay, not the top. But closer than she’s been in a long, long time. I say it was a triumph. And it’s not just because they gave me wine and let me sit that close to Prince. Good party, dude.