Barack and Michelle Obama, if you don’t already have plans for Saturday night, Clive Davis would like a word. When asked whom he’d like most to attend his and the Recording Academy’s Pre-Grammy gala who never has, the legendary executive and chief creative officer of Sony Music says the 44th president and his wife. “They should come this year, they’d love it!” he adds with a laugh. No sitting or past president has ever attended the event, though former Vice President Al Gore attended in 2007 with his then wife Tipper.
Obamas in attendance or not, Davis will preside over the Feb. 3 event — as he has since the first gala in 1976 — at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, which promises to bring together the usual constellation of stars from the worlds of music, sports, film and politics. Senator Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is expected to attend for the 24th or 25th time (Davis can’t remember exactly), as are athletic greats Scottie Pippen, Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova. SZA, this year’s top Grammy nominee (whom Davis met Wednesday at Billboard’s Power 100 party), will be there, as will best new artist nominees Noah Kahan, Ice Spice and Jelly Roll, as well as icons like Gladys Knight, Diana Ross and Berry Gordy.
Not in attendance this year (though certainly invited) will be Taylor Swift, whose touring rehearsals didn’t permit for her to come, Davis says — before he launches into a touching story of how his respect for Swift grew even greater when she sang every word to “Chances Are” in 2015 as the renowned crooner Johnny Mathis performed a greatest hits set.
Davis, clad in a resplendent purple blazer and purple pullover — with his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Charlie, by his side at the Beverly Hilton — talked with Billboard about this year’s gala on Thursday (Feb. 1), as well as some memories of past years. As always, the list of performers remains secret until the evening, though attendees can expect the usual mix of hot newcomers, superstars and at least one classic artist among the 10 or 11 performances. The most Davis will reveal is to tease a possible duet between two artists who have never met.
See our conversation below.
When you started the party in 1976 to honor Barry Manilow and his Grammy nominations, did you imagine it would still be going 48 years later?
It never occurred to me. What I did know was Barry had come to me — he said, “Every label has a party, where’s our party?” And I said, “Barry, we just started, we’ll have two tables at Chasen’s. We can have the party the night before. We just started Arista; people will want to wish us well.” We ended up having it at the Bel Air Hotel. Stevie Wonder came, John Denver came, Elton John came. That is why that tradition has continued, and it is unceasingly touching that every company’s top players [attend].
Are you already thinking about the 50th?
No. I take it one year at a time.
When do people start asking you for an invite?
I would say months in advance, because it’s not based on any one factor, [like] who’s performing. They know the tradition; they know the history. What they usually ask if they have come before is for a plus-one, which is usually out of the question.
And then the most painful thing, as we welcome the new players from Spotify, from the streaming world, from the new organizations and those who have become president of labels that have never been there, we have a finite number of people we can invite. For every new member, we really have to cancel either a plus-one or say, “I’m sorry.” It’s not just they want to be there, they feel if they’re professionally in the music business, somewhat diminished [if they don’t receive an invitation]. And that is painful. And I don’t want to talk about that lightly or matter of factly. It’s painful especially to me, who’s been in the business as long as I have. And we have no other choice because they’re not really still active.
You could move it to a bigger location.
We don’t want to do it any place bigger. I mean, you can taste the performances; you can see them interact, artists asking John Legend to help on this song, Melissa Etheridge to help on that song. That framework’s a part of the evening.
What can you say about the documentary that’s in the works about the gala?
The documentary is pure and simple the history of the party. The team is going over the history of the entire party and gasping at the incredible history of legendary performances. I mean, Whitney [Houston] played the party six times. The year  that I started J Records and she knew that we were not going to work together, we never knew we’d be reunited as quickly as we were. But that year, the party had only two performers out of choice. That was Santana, because of the hugeness of their success, and Whitney. And the coverage of Whitney performing, and coming over to me and singing to me, “I Believe in You and Me” and “I Will Always Love You” — oh, I mean, it will tear your heart out. So, they’ve got all that, they’re thrilled with what’s there.
Has every party been filmed?
They’re going through it. We have a lot of parties that have been filmed. Certainly, they’ve been filmed the last few years, but we have coverage of [past parties.]
You mentioned the Obamas as people you’d like to attend. Who is someone you wish had performed, living or dead?
Prince. He attended, but he never performed. He’s been in the audience.
We lost so many amazing artists this past year, including Jimmy Buffett and Tina Turner. Are you paying homage to them or any of the other people we lost this year?
We have done, in the past, tributes. We’re not doing a tribute [this year]. In a way we’re celebrating one artist, but not because we’ve lost this artist. The evening will end with a tribute to one artist.
That’s another tantalizing hint. This year, Sony Music Publishing’s chairman/CEO Jon Platt will receive the Industry Icons Award. Does he get to select any of the performers?
The honoree will have two artists, historically, to perform in his honor that he has chosen. We’ve never really worked together, but I’m a big admirer of his talent. I admire the talent of someone who has established a deep personal connection with artists, where they feel they’ve got to show up and represent for him. That’s a big talent. And he’s one of those people that has a wonderful personal connection with artists. [Davis confirmed to Entertainment Tonight that Platt’s friends, Beyonce and Jay Z, would be in attendance].
How much attention do you pay to the seating chart — even though your son, Doug, and longtime event producer Stacy Carr, handle many of the details?
I pay a lot of attention — because, with all due respect to them who make the initial [seating chart], having been in the industry all those years, you really want to seat people so that they understand that there is parity between them and others. It’s human nature amongst those artists. So I do look it over very carefully, and the [seating chart] board will be rolled out, probably beginning tonight.
Where will you watch the Grammys on Sunday night?
I have a select number of people watch with me in my suite at the hotel. I like the close-ups. It’s definitely more personal. I have a number of people come over, some business associates and friends, and we watch it together. And then I’ll go to the Sony party.
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