The annual Clive Davis Pre-Grammy Gala will make its grand in-person return on Saturday night (Feb. 4) for the first time since 2020 due to the pandemic. And naturally, the legend promises it to be the most stellar, most star-studded one yet.
The 2023 gala will honor Atlantic executives Craig Kallman, CEO and chairman of Atlantic Records, and Julie Greenwald, CEO and chairman of Atlantic Music Group. Atlantic Records’ roster includes Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Cardi B, Lizzo, Jack Harlow and more. The label scored 40 nominations at this year’s Grammys.
While speaking with Billboard days before his anticipated event, Davis reveals that two Atlantic superstars will perform. He also spoke of a duet between a “Latin superstar” and a “major rock hero” — which Davis first teased earlier this week at the Billboard Power 100 event, joking that “I’ve never followed Bad Bunny before” — adding it came as a personal request from the rocker himself.
Davis also revealed how and when he begins to plan such an impressive party year after year, and also shared the one thing he does right after each gala comes to an end.
“The demand for tickets is always intense,” says Davis. “And the challenge is to provide a show, not opportunities to quote ‘shmooze.’ It’s the show that everybody writes me of the memories.”
But regardless of who shows up and who performs this year, Davis has only one hope, “That it achieves what all the others did: that we have a celebration of music.”
The big conversation point for you this year is that this gala is coming back after three years. When did the planning start?
You know, you cannot plan until the Grammy nominations occur, because if you want someone who should be nominated — and you know that there have been surprises in recent years with people that should have been nominated and got no nomination — so nobody will commit to being in L.A. Grammy week. So we wait for the day that the Grammy Award nominations come out. However, we are no way whatsoever slaves to just have Grammy nominees perform. I mean, I’ve reached back. I thought eight years ago, “It’s time for Taylor Swift to see Johnny Mathis.” I brought out Johnny Mathis and I’m looking at Taylor from the stage and I’m saying, “Taylor, congratulations on all that you’re doing. You’ve probably never seen the next performer because he rarely tours, but he’s up there with Sinatra. The greatest of all time. And an album of his greatest hits was on the Billboard 200 for 10 consecutive years.” She did her trademark gasp and then I brought Johnny on to do his greatest hits. I have a version of that in mind for Saturday night. Something different, which I can’t talk about, but it’s a night that celebrates music.
Yes, Nancy Pelosi is coming for the 23rd consecutive year, and she’ll be there with her husband, Paul. Everybody will be touched that he is well enough to come. But the audience has every year the top leading people who run companies all over the world, music publishers but also networks and motion picture studios and sports representatives. I mean, Magic Johnson comes every year and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Chris Bosh, CC Sebathia… if you love music, you want to be there. So the demand for tickets is always intense. And the challenge is to provide a show, not opportunities to quote “shmooze,” it’s the show that everybody writes me of the memories. That they saw Whitney with Nat King Cole. That they saw Alicia Keys duet with Aretha Franklin. That they saw Rod Stewart at the height of the Great American Songbook sing with Lou Reed and Slash. As I mentioned, I didn’t know I’d be following Bad Bunny [at the Power 100 event]. So it did trigger [me discussing] Latin music, what has happened with him and Rosalia, with Anitta and so many others. I’m really pleased that we have a unique duet Saturday night of a major rock hero with a Latin superstar, and I was very pleased to point that out being in the position of following Bad Bunny. This came from the rock artist that his two songs he would like to do with the major Latin star. And I don’t know whether they ever worked together before. I had not heard of such, but it’s killer, as they say. A killer combo.
The gala is honoring Atlantic Records’ Craig Kallman and Julie Greenwald this year. You’ve known them for some time, do you have a favorite memory having worked together?
I don’t work with them. I compete with them. Because Craig is very close with two of my sons, Fred Davis and Doug Davis, we have gotten personally friendly. We are Jewish and we have Passover dinners and Craig has attended with his wife a few of my Passover dinners. So we are really good extended friends, extended family.
When making the guest list, how do you find the right balance between inviting legends and the newer artists that you’re always so good at spotting?
We have every year given the Icon winner an opportunity to pick two artists, and we have about nine artists that we show. So the Icon section usually does not take place until after five or six artists have appeared that have no relationship to the Icon. I can’t tell you right now, but there are definitely two very, very, very talented Atlantic artists performing and I believe that an Atlantic Records artist will introduce part of the segment verbally, which is a nice touch that we’ve never had before. So they’ll definitely be, performance wise, at least two Atlantic artists.
What’s exciting to you in music right now?
What hip-hop has become. My concern was and has been that hip-hop has so dominated not only its own genre but Top 40, that I worry where the next Bob Dylan, where the next Bruce Springsteen is going to come from. I wonder where the next Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston is. It’s not easy, even for the biggest voices that are around, although I’m encouraged by what’s happening with SZA and Jazmine Sullivan and a few others. As I see hip-hop broadening its vision and combining with R&B or seeing artists of pop and folk and rock broaden their horizons, I’m seeing a broadening of musical influence. But we’ve got to make sure as exciting as Kendrick Lamar and Drake are and as wonderful as hip-hop stars are, that we don’t narrow the breadth of what contemporary music is all about.
After the gala, what is the first thing that you do?
We go to the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel and do the postmortem. You know when you have a party, whether it be a wedding or another event, that you want the postmortem to review what happened and get the reactions. You want to stew about it, gossip about it, enjoy it. So that’s what I do.
Is there one postmortem that stands out the most, where you all couldn’t believe what had just happened?
You know what’s surprising, and it happens every year, and maybe that’s why it’s lasted as long, is every year in a heartfelt, honest way, the postmortem is, “This was the best party ever.” I can’t believe how every year, with a straight face, so many say, “This was the best ever.” If you ask me now, reminiscing — we’re going to put together a documentary of the greatest hits of the greatest parties — it’s hard to evaluate which performance or memory was most special.
What is the most memorable or over the top thank you that you have received?
I was leaving Arista and I decided that there’d be only two artists performing at my Grammy party that year. There was Carlos Santana performing memorably with Rob Thomas and Wyclef doing “Black Magic Woman,” Oye Como Va” and “Evil Ways” from the first time I signed him and “Smooth” and “Maria, Maria” from the second. But then Whitney came on after two memorable speeches of what my work has meant to music. One was from Stevie Wonder and the other was from Lauryn Hill, and they were both incredibly touching. But the most touching was Whitney coming to the center of the stage and singing, “I Believe in You and Me,” just to me. And then singing “I Will Always Love You,” just to me. So it was a very vulnerable time in life and it was so touching to see her love. Neither of us thought that we’d be back together again two or so years later. But you can’t top that. You can’t top those songs sung by Whitney personally expressing her love.
Ahead of Saturday night’s gala, what is your one hope for this year’s event?
That it achieves what all the others did: that we have a celebration of music. That they see performances that are among the greatest that they would’ve seen. I’ve gotten so many personal emails from very celebrated people. I’ll give you examples of Tim Cook meeting David Hockney for the first time. Brandi Carlile meeting Joni Mitchell for the first time. Her hero. It was her first year in the audience and I got to know her because we were doing 10-20 interviews together and what emerged was what a unique heroine Joni was to Brandi. Well, I put her at the same table and it changed both [of their lives]. They are so close [now]. So meeting people that they would not otherwise meet, whether it be [Barbara] Streisand, Puffy or Pharrell. Trevor [Noah] is coming this year. Just hearing people when they attend the party saying how special it is for them.