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The annual pre-Grammy gala known as the Clive Davis party is an A-list showbiz summit — "the invite everybody wants," as CBS boss Les Moonves put it — masquerading as an intimate hang. This year's event Saturday at the Beverly Hilton was no exception.
That's why Usher, R&B's crown prince, admitted to the packed ballroom that he once planned to use the stage name Cha Cha. He was doing his part to make the star-studded audience feel like family.
But he was aiming to keep the mood light too: Saturday's party came days away from the anniversary of Whitney Houston's death, which last year transformed the gala — held mere hours after Houston was found dead in a room at the hotel — into a somber tribute to the artist Davis called "the greatest singer of our lifetime."
On Saturday Davis remembered his protégé with some words and a video clip from an early TV special; he also thanked Houston's brother Gary and sister-in-law Pat for coming. (The singer's mother, Cissy Houston, told "Access Hollywood" last week that she considered Davis' invitation "the most obscene thing.")
For the most part, though, Saturday's three-hour bash — attended by Sting, Miley Cyrus, Joni Mitchell, Magic Johnson, Katy Perry, Johnny Depp and Frank Ocean, among many others — seemed designed for uplift, not reflection.
That's what you had to assume, anyway, when Afrojack turned up to blast the black-tie crowd with throbbing electro-house beats, including "Titanium," the Dutch DJ's fist-pumping collaboration with David Guetta and Sia.
"I wanted the culture of [electronic dance music] to be represented tonight," Davis said, and so it was — even if the sound proved a strange match for the ballroom setting.
Following Afrojack's opening set, Davis brought to the stage Patti Smith, whom he signed to Arista Records in 1975; she played "Gloria" and "People Have the Power," leading a band that included her daughter, Jesse, on keyboards. Miguel sang "Sure Thing" and the Grammy-nominated "Adorn," and the Lumineers did their Top 10 hit "Ho Hey."
Usher's performance of "U Got It Bad" and "Climax" doubled as a toast to this year's recipient of the so-called Industry Icon award, Epic Records chairman (and "X Factor" judge) Antonio "L.A." Reid. Known for his work with OutKast, Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne, among others, he's also the guy who advised Usher not to go by Cha Cha.
"Thank you for that," the singer said, getting laughs from the well-lubricated room.
Saturday's show closed with a triple play of female soul singers, beginning with Emeli Sandé, the young British artist who apparently does for Davis what Leona Lewis used to. Jennifer Hudson was up next with a typically expert rendition of Gladys Knight's "Where Peaceful Waters Flow." Then Knight herself joined Hudson for "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" before wrapping up with the inevitable "Midnight Train to Georgia."