The annual Pre-Grammy Gala, the music calendar's hottest social event, typically delivers a few surprises on stage. On Saturday night, the stage was set with a stunner, the death of Whitney Houston, that cast a sad and surreal shroud over the star-studded affair at the Beverly Hilton ballroom.
The singer, 48, pronounced dead at 3:55 p.m. in a fourth-floor room at the hotel, has long been a regular guest and performer at the party, usually on the arm of host and mentor Clive Davis, Sony Music's chief creative officer.
As hundreds filed in for the lavish dinner and show co-sponsored by The Recording Academy, news of Houston's death dominated conversations, and rumors swirled that Davis would skip the soiree.
The music mogul stepped to the microphone after 9:30 p.m., stating somberly, "By now you have all learned of the unspeakably tragic news of our beloved Whitney's passing. I don't have to mask my emotion in front of a room full of so many dear friends. I am personally devastated by the loss of someone who has meant so much to me for so many years. Whitney was so full of life. She was so looking forward to tonight even though she wasn't scheduled to perform. She loved music and she loved this night that celebrates music."
Referring to the gathered artists and executives as Houston's "extended family," he said, "She graced this stage with her regal presence and gave so many memorable performances here over the years. So, simply put, Whitney would have wanted the music to go on and her family asked that we carry on."
The mood lightened, but the night that was originally intended to honor Diana Ross and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson mostly focused on the memory of a silenced singer.
Tony Bennett sang a powerful version of How Do You Keep the Music Playing?, and told the crowd, "When I first heard her, I called Clive Davis and said, 'You finally got the greatest singer I ever heard.' "
Sean Combs recalled sitting beside her at a BET Awards ceremony.
"She was there for a good time," he said. "She always hit you with that beautiful smile. She gave you that grandma hug that shook your body. … She was not a hater, she was a congratulator. To hear her sing was like listening to magic."
Alicia Keys spoke warmly of Houston and sang a bit of the chorus from I Wanna Dance With Somebody before performing No One and an acoustic New York State of Mind.
Ray Davies pierced the gloom with such Kinks hits as You Really Got Me and Lola, plus Waterloo Sunset with Jackson Browne and Thank You for the Days with Elvis Costello. Also taking the stage were Miranda Lambert (The House That Built Me, Baggage Claim), Jessie J (Domino, Who You Are) and Wiz Khalifa (Black and Yellow, Young, Wild & Free with Miguel). The show closed with a tribute to Diana Ross featuring Marsha Ambrosius and The Supreme herself, who was led to the stage by Jamie Foxx to sing Ain't No Mountain High Enough.
Entertainment's usual array of VIPs were on hand, from Jane Fonda, Ben Vereen and Jon Voigt to Danielle Steel and Jackie Collins. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and John Fogerty shared a table. Also there: Herbie Hancock, Britney Spears, Donovan, Sly Stone, Skrillex, Lana Del Rey, Dr. Dre, Todd Rundgren, Ne-Yo, Jimmy Jam, Slash, L.A. Reid and Swizz Beatz.
Shop talk took a back seat to reflections on a cherished talent.
"She's an icon," said Glee star Matthew Morrison, who had his picture snapped with Houston at last year's gala. The Bodyguard soundtrack "was one of my favorite things growing up."
David Foster, who produced portions of three Houston albums, including The Bodyguard, said, "She had an incredible body of work. What artist sustains for 25 years with hits? Nobody."
History won't dwell on her drug abuse or professional setbacks, he said.
"She will absolutely, 100 percent only be remembered as one of the greatest voices of all time," Foster said. "The rest will disappear, as it should."
Tom Hanks didn't know Houston but admired her singing and saw the party as "kind of like going to church," he said, "Everyone is talking about it. All you can do is bow your head to divine providence. Everybody knows about the problems she had. Everyone here would rather have been celebrating her when she's 68. She was a huge influence. I wish there would have been a different asterisk."
Songwriter Diane Warren said bluntly, "It's weird to be here. I don't feel like partying. Her body is upstairs and we're here the same day she died. I was with Clive earlier, and I've never seen him so devastated. I thought he would cancel, but I guess the train had left the station."
Warren wrote I Didn't Know My Own Strength, a song on Houston's final album, 2009's I Look to You. "It was about the fact that Whitney beat her demons and made it," she said. "I don't know. It's the saddest thing. You talk to any singer on the planet now, they'll say she's the best vocalist of our time."
Gayle King chimes in, "We all cheered her on with I Didn't Know My Own Strength. It was exhilarating to see her come back that way, and we all thought, 'She's done it!' We can't speculate, because we don't know the cause of death. My heart is breaking. Everyone's is, because we loved her so much. It's healing to be here, around people who understood."
Tennis champ Serena Williams said she's praying for Houston's family.
"It's totally sad," she said, "One Moment In Time, I won so many grand slams listening to that song. She's amazing."
Wiz Khalifa also said he's keeping Houston's family in his prayers. "She's an icon and a legend, so of course we're all in love with her music. I'm 24. You can't be in my generation and not love and respect and go all out for Whitney and her music."
India Arie said Houston's influence was pervasive. "I hear her in my vocals sometimes. I feel like for all singers in R&B or soul or gospel-style singing, Whitney is in there."
Toni Braxton felt the loss personally and professionally. "She was a complete sister to me in the business. She would always give me great advice. She would check on me and my little one, who is autistic. She'll be a superstar forever. She was the first one who stood at a microphone and you didn't see color. You just heard this voice."