No one has any further information about how Whitney Houston died Saturday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, other than TMZ’s ongoing (and not always entirely accurate) reports that she was apparently found in the bathtub, possibly from drowning, with prescription medicine nearby.
Instead, most media outlets, from CNN to MTV, have been focusing on two other details:
1) How in the world is Clive Davis coping?
How has he had the fortitude to carry on with his annual pre-Grammy gala, this year a toast to Richard Branson, inside the very same hotel where his greatest discovery was just found dead? Reportedly Houston’s body was still on site when the shindig began. How the indomitable Davis is holding it together amid such devastation can’t be easily explained.
Yes, he’s been through this sort of thing before: Davis, 79, was an early champion of Janis Joplin, another force-of-nature vocalist and his first breakout star for Columbia Records, who he signed after seeing her head-turning performance with Big Brother & the Holding Company at Monterey Pop in ’67. Three years later she was dead of a heroin overdose.
That was a senseless loss. This, however, is a tragedy that surely runs deeper for Davis. By all accounts Houston was like a daughter to him.
I met Clive Davis once, at his invitation; he wanted to wax rhapsodic about another new protÃ©gÃ©, Leona Lewis, just as he’d done when he first got excited about Alicia Keys (consoling him above). His conviction was infectious, his passion palpable, and his thoughtfulness toward a relative kid whose two cents hardly matter is something I’ve rarely come across in a fickle industry. When I think of what the music world has lost, what comeback we may have been denied, I’m sad. When I think of how hard all this must be hitting Mr. Davis, that’s when my heart aches the most.
Perhaps Bette Midler expresses it for him, as she does for many: “Little by little,” she tweeted, “these deaths kill the best part of each of us, the awe and joy we feel when we hear a gift that can only come from God.
2) What in the world will happen at the Grammys?
We know this much: Jennifer Hudson, who only the night before had appeared on Piers Morgan’s show alongside Davis discussing the late diva (her hero), will lead a dedication that also will feature Chaka Khan … and hopefully not many others.
If you ask me, the more superstars get tossed into the tribute, the more likely it is that the salute will become a maudlin mess. The day for the Whitney Houston Memorial Concert will come, no doubt quickly, as it did for Michael Jackson. Now is the time for mourning, yes, but also tasteful restraint.
Ken Ehrlich, executive producer of the Grammy telecast (not to mention the memorable Jackson memorial), said as much while speaking to CNN: “We donâ€™t want to rush to anything that wouldnâ€™t be respectful,” confirming that he had called Hudson to appear.
“Weâ€™re really at this moment talking about what sheâ€™s going to do, (but) it will be something respectful. Itâ€™s not going to be a full-blown tribute. To me, that feels like itâ€™s too early, itâ€™s too fresh at this moment. We’re working on something that will be really respectful and appropriate to Whitney’s memory.”
Where in the show will it happen? Luckily, it turns out the planned production was two and a half minutes light on timing, according to that same CNN report.
“Weâ€™ve already gone through the script,” Ehrlich says. “Weâ€™ve made a few changes to make sure the tone is right … that probably make it more appropriate to what has happened.”
Frankly, I think there’s only one option: open with it.
Houston’s death will hang over the entire ceremony no matter how much Adele does or does not bring down the house, no matter how hard Springsteen or Foo Fighters rock. “I canâ€™t imagine there will be a single presenter or award winner who will not want to pay their own tribute,” Morgan said tonight.
That’s surely a stretch, but the shock of it all is likely the first thing anyone tuning into the Grammys will be wondering about come Sunday evening. Certainly it’s going to dampen the usual red-carpet schmooze before that. Who cares who’s wearing whom when a musical death of this magnitude has happened?
Addressing it right from the start not only makes sense, it’s almost mandated. They can’t very well save it for the end, when a large share of the initial audience may have gone to bed, and the longer they wait, the more it can inadvertently seem like they’re exploiting the tribute for better ratings.
I say you give it a cold open. Just Jennifer Hudson on a dark stage, lit by a sole spotlight. Let her belt out “I Will Always Love You” with all the personal intensity you know she can bring to it; let her do the crying for everyone. Then bring out Chaka Khan for an uptempo number (“I’m Every Woman”) — because someone has to try to revive good feelings inside Staples Center if they’re gonna carry on with an otherwise joyful celebration.
Mind you, I don’t actually think that’s what will happen. Just a suggestion. I have faith in Ehrlich and NARAS President Neil Portnow: They’ve handled tricky situations like this before inside Staples Center, though usually they’ve had more than 24 hours to map out a plan.
“Itâ€™s still gonna be a great music show,” Ehrlich insisted to CNN. “Knowing Whitney as I did, I think she very much would have wanted us to â€¦ she was a great artist, she was a great performer (and) she knew the importance of thrilling an audience, and thatâ€™s what we still plan to do tomorrow.”