Whitney: Clean, Sober and Soaring

Sunday, February 08, 2009
By Roger Friedman
Whitney Houston is back. Last night she took the stage at Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy bash and wowed the crowd with a medley of hits. She was clean, sober, and joyous, absolutely radiant and healthy.

Houston knew it was a triumph and she gained confidence as she went from her opening ballad—a shortened version of “I Will Always Love You” through a few of her hits ending with a buoyant “I’m Every Woman.” If there was a fear that her voice was gone, she dispelled it. And while she may not be singing the way she did at 25, the 45 year old is still among the very premiere song stylists in the world.

And that’s saying a lot at Davis’s famous pre-Grammy show. Last night the featured perfomers before Houston took the stage included a magnificent Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson, Leona Lewis, as well as Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, Josh Groban (substituting for Usher), rockers Kings of Leon, and Sean Puffy Combs featuring Faith Evans in the evening’s one misstep.

Davis received a Lifetime Achievement award at the dinner held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel ballroom from the Grammys as an Industry Icon. The recording academy helped sponsor this year’s dinner which many thought could be the last, but I am assured these events will continue as long as Davis wants to have them.

And why not? The Davis dinner showcases the best the record industry has to offer in front of a star studded crowd. Last night the star wattage was turned up several notches by the attendance of Sir Paul McCartney, Prince, and none other than Sly Stone sporting a fuzzy white mohawk. From there on the stars just kept coming: lots of American Idol winners and three of the judges—Randy, Paula and newbie Karo (Simon Cowell was said to be in London).

The Idols on display were Fantasia, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Taylor Swift, and of course Jennifer Hudson.

And then it was just lots of A list stars, from Joan Collins and Jackie Collins to Jamie Foxx, Rihanna, Rosanna Arquette, Bill Maher, Natalie Cole, Sam Moore, Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, Katy Perry, actor Jon Voight, Herbie Hancock, producer Richard Perry, Chris Tucker, singer Eric Benet, Chris Brown, the Blackeyed Peas, Val Kilmer, Nikki Haskell, director Brett Ratner, David Spade, singer Ryan Shaw, plus both Burt Bacharach and Hal David, movie mogul Bob Shaye, Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, songwriter Dianne Warren, Denise Rich, Holly Robinson Peete, Jimmy Jam Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Kenny Babyface Edmonds, L.A. Reid, John Stamos, singer Duffy, investor Vivi Nevo, and so on.

There wasn’t a table or corner in the packed ballroom where you couldn’t a surprising new face. For example, huddled with Prince all night was his pal, Cedric the Entertainer. When Jamie Foxx did some killer standup about Prince—who sat stone faced for most of it—it was Cedric who was backing the diminutive star up.

And how odd was it that Prince and Sly Stone were just several feet away from each other, in their sightlines, but never spoke? Prince, one could argue, owes his whole career to Stone.

Whitney brought family with her including mom Cissy Houston (walking with a cane from a bad ankle) and daughter Bobbi Kristina, brother Gary and sister-in-law Pat. Jennifer Hudson had her fiancée David Otunga with her for support.

And around the room there were plenty of record company legends, from Berry Gordy to Seymour Stein to producer Phil Ramone. Sony’s Rob Stringer introduced around the new head of Epic Records, British songwriter Amanda Ghost. Quincy Jones held court and cracked wise, while a pregnant Kimora Lee Simmons proudly arrived with actor boyfriend Djimon Honsou.

Maybe the biggest surprise of the night was a disarmingly gracious speech of contrition by Kanye West. He essentially apologized for past behavior and arrogance, hubris etc, praised both Katy Perry and will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas and ended his remarks by saying, “I’m humbled.”

Somehow security chief Bill Mancini, an expert at diplomacy, kept this high density group of egos and bold faced names happy and without incident. There was nary a party crasher, and none of the problems that usually plague the Golden Globes in the same location. Everyone was happy for a change! Amazing!

But the night as usual belong to Clive, who kept a steady commentary going between acts as he introduced famous guests to the crowd and acknowledged all their accomplishments. All of it was amazing, but none more than Houston’s remarkable—and most welcome—return to the stage. The audience naturally gave her standing ovations and shout outs, that was to be expected. But to hear her so fully back and ready –her album may be released in late summer—was Davis’s crowning glory. That is—until the album does come out, and is a hit.

To that end, I can tell you that most of the tracks for Houston’s comeback collection are finished. I’m told that among the possible singles is a composition titled “Calling You Tonight,” written and produced by Norwegian hitmakers Stargate. Get ready to hear that.

As for Jennifer Hudson—I have to say, she continues to astound and impress after the terrible tragedies in her family. On Friday night at the MusiCares tribute to Neil Diamond she stole the show with a powerful gospel rendition of “Holly Holy.” Last night, she performed her hit “Spotlight,” then sat down with Barry Manilow—who was at the piano—and walked away with his “Weekend in New England” in a duet that turned into a stunning solo knockout. Hudson will also perform tonight on the Grammys. I asked what she’ll do after all this is over. A vacation? Or back to work.

She narrowed her beautiful brown eyes at me. “I am here, now, that’s all I can say.” And that’s all she has to say. She’s remarkable.




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