Speaking before hundreds of entertainment executives, musicians and other VIPs gathered at the Beverly Hilton hotel just hours after the death of Whitney Houston, Clive Davis vowed that carrying on with his annual pre-Grammy bash was the most fitting tribute he could offer.
"She graced this stage with her regal presence so many times," Davis said. "Whitney would have wanted the music to go on and her family asked us to carry on."
Houston was Davis's protégée. But she also arrived at a moment when his career needed a boost, helping restore his stature by delivering the biggest commercial successes when he needed them the most.
"I am personally devastated," a visibly emotional Davis said.
The first two performers, Tony Bennett and Diana Krall, performed poignant standards: "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" and "If I Had You." Bennett told the crowd Houston was "the greatest singer I ever heard in my life."
Kinks frontman Ray Davies even included a poignant note prefacing an otherwise rocking set with a few pensive, a cappella lines from "Days." Later Jackson Browne joined him singing the Kinks' classic "Waterloo Sunset."
Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow said that Jennifer Hudson would perform a musical tribute to Houston during Sunday night's Grammy broadcast.
The Academy cohosted the Saturday-night event with Davis, and Portnow said canceling "was never an option, because you could hear Whitney on your shoulder saying 'Hey guys, this is showbiz; the show must go on'."
As the evening continued, Davis went ahead with his usual routine, pointing out stars in the crowd, including Joni Mitchell, Tom Hanks, Neil Young, Dr. Dre, Sly Stone, John Fogerty and a disheveled-looking Donovan.
Adding a macabre patina to the proceedings, Beverly Hills police said Houston's body continued to lie in the hotel room upstairs where she'd been found dead shortly before 4 p.m., even as guests were filing into a ground-floor ballroom at the same hotel. It was unclear when they planned to release the body to the county coroner.
On hand to present Virgin Records founder Richard Branson with an "industry icon" award, Jane Fonda acknowledged the "complicated" circumstances presented by the events preceding the event.
For his part, Branson regaled the crowd with tales of life in the 70s as a swashbuckling record executive: helping Keith Richards evade the husband of a woman he was sleeping with; smoking foot-long spliffs with Peter Tosh; and enlisting a priest to testify in the Sex Pistols' defense during an obscenity trial.
Though the cause of Houston's death hadn't been established, several speakers drew links to drugs, which the singer acknowledged struggling with. Bennett urged the crowd to "urge our government to legalized drugs so you can get them from a doctor, not just some gangsters."
Branson said he was part of an organization that advocates treating drugs "as a health problem, not a criminal problem."