Clive Davis (R) and John Legend (L)
Photo Courtesy of Clive Davis
2021 Pre-GRAMMY Virtual Gala: How The Annual Clive Davis Extravaganza Adapted To The Pandemic
Picture this pantheon: Bruce Springsteen, Carole King, John Legend, Rod Stewart, Jamie Foxx and Barry Gibb, all gathered to pay homage to music's finest executive, Clive Davis. Dynamo performances from the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Madonna, and more punctuate the gala, while everyone from Dionne Warwick to Martha Stewart watches from the sidelines.
Er, one second—that's "iPhone Dionne Warwick" and "Martha's iPhone XS Max T-Mobile." Wait, is that a Pomeranian-themed calendar behind Warwick? Did Martha Stewart just drop said iPhone in her purse without deactivating the camera first? Holy cats—does she have a marble ceiling?
Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it goes without saying that assembling a multitude of celebrities for a Beverly Hills bash remains impossible. So, this year, Clive Davis' annual, high-profile Pre-GRAMMY Gala went virtual.
Alicia Keys (L) and Clive Davis (R) | Photo Courtesy of Clive Davis
The 2021 Pre-GRAMMY Virtual Gala took place Saturday (Jan. 30), the night before the Academy initially planned to throw the 63rd GRAMMY Awards. They have rescheduled the ceremony to Sunday, March 14, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Virtual Gala, benefitting MusiCares, was the first of two events. The second will occur Saturday, March 13, the night before this year's GRAMMY show, and will benefit the GRAMMY Museum.
Clive Davis' annual Pre-GRAMMY bash is one of the starriest nights of the year, an opportunity to rub elbows with music industry giants and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi alike. But 2021 was no ordinary year, and this was no average gala. Swapping bespoke suits and elaborate dresses for pajamas and leisure suits, the famous guests gave viewers a personal, sometimes awkward, look into their homes and lives. Where it lost the spectacle of someone like Travis Scott bringing a crowd to its knees, this year's virtual event created a sense of intimate beauty and captured the shared feeling of community online.
Taking full advantage of the virtual experience, Davis structured the Virtual Gala around archival footage of what he believes to be the most outstanding performances of all time. (The night featured clips of Frank Sinatra, Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys, Whitney Houston and others.)
Throughout, Davis acted as a tour guide through past live and televised performances from rock, folk and soul artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. A baby-faced Bob Dylan strums his signature song, "Blowin' in the Wind." The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, brings Barack and Michelle Obama to near-tears at the Kennedy Center in 2015 with "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." (The tune's co-writer, Carole King, can hardly contain herself in the crowd.)
"This performance speaks to why I want to do this event tonight," Davis said of the Franklin performance. "Even through your computer screen, if you don't have goosebumps, you should check carefully for a pulse."
Davis later calls Houston's 1994 set, a medley of "I Loves You Porgy," "I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" and "I Have Nothing," "the greatest television performance for any artist."
And while Davis' annual Pre-GRAMMY Gala is typically a place where artists shine, the virtual audience was the main attraction this year. Anyone with an internet connection can watch old rock 'n' roll footage; it's a different, surreal experience to watch Joni Mitchell, George Benson and Herbie Hancock as they watch it. Ditto Carl Bernstein, who helped break the Watergate scandal, and "CNN Tonight" anchor Don Lemon.
If there's one silver lining of the Zoom era, it's that we can be a fly in the wall in celebrities' homes. As such, the Gala's format delivered the lion's share of its fun. Martha Stewart picked at the charcuterie in her kitchen, where her enviable pan collection hung from the ceiling. One of the most magnificent harmonic thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Hancock smiled in front of a series of laser-beam screensavers. "Will you shut up?" Rod Stewart chided his yapping dog with a smile during his interview. "I'm talking to Clive Davis!"
Bruce Springsteen (L) and Clive Davis (R) | Photo Courtesy of Clive Davis
Despite the fact we're still housebound, the online Gala’s tenor was one of brighter days ahead. "Perhaps the most uplifting and optimistic song you've ever written is 'Land of Hope and Dreams,'" Davis told Springsteen at one point, citing his late-'90s cut released on Wrecking Ball (2012).
"Are you despondent about the nation's future and the American promise? Or are you as hopeful as you were when you wrote about those 'big wheels rolling through fields where sunlight streams'?" he asked.
"The American dream itself is [an] aspiration," Springsteen replied from the Colts Neck, New Jersey, studio where he and the E Street Band recently slugged out their 2020 album, Letter to You. "The distance between American reality and the American Dream, we are always trying to close, whether you're an artist or a politician … I remain hopeful even in the midst of the great difficulties we are going through at this moment that the nation can reunite and find its better angels and move forward, you know? I have to believe that."
Barry Gibb (L) and Clive Davis (R) | Photo Courtesy of Clive Davis
For celebrities and everyday folks alike, the past year has taken a toll on all of us. As such, an extra glint of humility shone through these interviews.
"I've never taken anything for granted, and you've never taken anything for granted," Davis told Barry Gibb. (The latter is having a banner 2020 and 2021 with the HBO doc on the Bee Gees, How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, and his duets album with Americana artists, Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1.) "To see this album debut at the top of the charts is thrilling for me as a fan, and it's got to be thrilling for you as the architect."
"It's shocking; there's no question about that," Gibb replied. "It's the first No. 1 in 40 years, and that's something extremely special that I can't put into words … It was all like a dream, and the whole thing came like a vision, including the title."
As expected for a whopping five-hour event, some of the celebs tapped out early, leaving their bewildered pets blinking at the camera. Joni Mitchell, however, was a trooper, observing the telecast stoically while her creamsicle-colored cat pranced around for attention.
Seeing Mitchell happy, healthy and hilarious is bittersweet. In 2015, she suffered an aneurysm; in 2020, she still struggled to walk because of it. Yet at the end of the night, there she was, pajama-clad, munching popcorn and cracking jokes. Throughout the broadcast, Mitchell regally sipped white wine with both hands. (Here's to your next 77 years, Joni.)
While this year's Pre-GRAMMY Gala may have missed the usual hobnobbing and rapport, that bug revealed itself to be a feature. Of course, as always, the point was the music, but housebound legends and their assemblage of furry friends stole the show for once. With vaccines rolling out worldwide, music will be back to business as usual in no time."
And just like every year, this year's (virtual) Pre-GRAMMY Gala was unique and unrepeatable—and it hit different as a result.