By Alex Suskind
February 10, 2019 at 03:27 PM EST
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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It’s typically, often boastingly, referred to by its hosts as the hottest ticket in town. It attracts a disparate group of musical luminaries along with athletes, actors, producers, politicians, and TV hosts. It is probably the only place you’ll see smooth jazz icon Kenny G make his way across the room to shake hands with multi-hyphenate hitmaker Pharrell Williams, or Barbra Streisand rub shoulders with A$AP Rocky. It is Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammys gala, held at the Beverly Hilton.

Since 1976, the dinner and accompanying concert has served as a kind of yearly high school reunion for the music industry’s elite, as up-and-coming talent glad-hand with older icons. As one attendee put it while standing in a long, meandering metal detector line to enter the event, “The schmoozing at this party is so good.”

To wit, during cocktail hour: Beck stopped by for a quick chat with super-pop producer and Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff, Travis Scott sauntered down the ballroom stairs in a sharp suit, Quincy Jones greeted friend and famed producer Clarence Avant (“It’s the man of the hour!”). Also spotted were Nancy Pelosi, Scooter Braun, Ciara, St. Vincent, Natasha Lyonne, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a radiant Joni Mitchell. Beverly Hills Police officers stationed alongside the outer wall whipped out their phones to not-so-surreptitiously snap photos of it all.

“What a great tradition we have established,” said Davis, after a warm and welcome introduction from LL Cool J, who called the record exec “the man who created the soundtrack to our lives.” There were standing ovations once Davis name-dropped a few of the notable figures in the audience (Pelosi, Apple CEO Tim Cook) — a Clive tradition that continued throughout the event — before receiving a tepid response after asking those attendance to pay tribute to outgoing Recording Academy President Neil Portnow. 

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Then, came music. Scott, the first performer of the night, sang a slightly stripped down, Auto-Tuned medley of “Antidote” plus current hip-hop moshing favorite “Sicko Mode.” The crowd sat through half of the set before the rapper eventually goaded everyone into standing.

“Y’all looking a little tense in here — my name is Travis and I only come to rage. I don’t come for bystanders. I could have been watching SpongeBob with [my daughter] Stormi but I decided to party with y’all,” said the Astroworld MC. Scott ended up being the only rapper of the night to grace the stage. (Future was listed on the run-of-show sheet, scheduled to perform “Mask Off” and new track “Crushed Up,” but he ended up not showing, depriving us of a chance to watch the Atlanta MC boast about the benefits of molly and Percocet to a room full of tuxedoed music executives.)

After Scott came a predictably rousing version of “This Is Me” from Greatest Showman star Keala Settle, followed up by a mild-mannered attempt from Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha, who played their ubiquitous No. 1 country crossover hit “Meant to Be.” R&B upstart and Grammy nominee H.E.R. performed a swelling rendition of Ed Sheeran’s “Make it Rain,” while Brandi Carlile closed out the first half of the show with a pitch-perfect take on her Grammy-nominated track “The Joke.” “Thank you very much Clive,” said the folk singer, who had sang the night before at the MusiCares Person of the Year Celebration honoring Dolly Parton. “What an unspeakable honor.”

The gala typically has a few surprises in store, and this year it was Morris Day and the Time, who were their to pay tribute to Grammy Salute to Industry Icons honoree Clarence Avant. Day, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Jerome Benton burned through renditions of “Jungle Love” and “Bird,” while CNN anchor Don Lemon could be seen in the back dancing and singing up a storm.

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“I first met Clarence in 1963,” said producer Quincy Jones, who followed up The Time set with honorary remarks to his friend Avant, a pioneering manager and producer who signed and mentored some of the most notable acts of the 20th Century. “He came to the office and he asked me for $450,000 for Jimmy Smith. I told him he was out of his damn mind.” When Avant got up to accept his award, he jokingly doubled down on Jones’ line: “When I was told I would be getting this award…I said, ‘Are they paying me?’” Earlier, a clip from a documentary about Avant featured P Diddy stating “Clarence made sure that you don’t get f—ed.”

By the end of the evening many of the tables had emptied, the crowd grew restless, and the glam began to fade. But the music kept going. Closing things out were R&B duo (and Best New Artist Grammy nominees) Chloe x Halle. Fresh off their Super Bowl LIII performance of “America the Beautiful,” the sisters paid tribute to the Aretha Franklin song “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” before being joined by Carlile and Settle. It wasn’t quite the star-studded supergroup conclusion that had been produced in years past, but Clive Davis didn’t seem to mind, as he stood off-stage, quietly beaming at his creation.

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