"I've got it, I've got it!" Houston, looking glamorous in a skintight leopard dress, sang early Sunday morning as she belted a line from one of her classic hits, "I'm Every Woman." But more than a lyric, it summarized to the crowd of A-list superstars and top industry execs that the superstar — whose drug use and erratic behavior had caused a shocking fall from grace just a few years ago — was back in top form.
"We all crossed our fingers that her beautiful story would end (happily)," said Jamie Foxx, who stood at the front of the stage and took video of Houston like he was just another fan in the crowd. "This is a new beginning."
Houston's mini-concert put an exclamation point on a night that included a rousing performance by Kelly Clarkson, an unlikely but magical duet between Jennifer Hudson and Barry Manilow and a rambling monologue by Kanye West.
"I have to bow in the presence of greats right now," West said as he looked out into the crowd, which at one point included Sir Paul McCartney, Prince, Diddy, Rihanna, the Jonas Brothers, Taylor Swift, Quincy Jones, and other luminaries.
"I'm just humbled by your greatness, and also Clive," West told the audience.
Davis, the music mogul who founded labels, signed greats ranging from Houston to Bruce Springsteen to Janis Joplin, and resuscitated the careers of veterans like Rod Stewart and Carlos Santana, was honored by the Recording Academy as an industry icon on Saturday, hours before Sunday's Grammys. For nearly three decades, Davis' pre-Grammy party and concert had become one of the industry's most coveted invites; this year, the Recording Academy took the event over and honored Davis instead.
But while Davis got an award, he still held court like it was his own party, acting as the evening's host as he introduced performers like Stewart, the Kings of Leon and Leona Lewis.
Diddy got the often staid crowd on their feet with a moving rendition of his tribute to the slain Notorious B.I.G., "I'll Be Missing You," with Biggie's widow, singer Faith Evans, and a gospel choir.
Clarkson got one of the evening's biggest ovations with her performance of her new single, "My Life Would Suck Without You" and the Joplin gem "Piece of My Heart."
But Hudson was perhaps the night's biggest star — until Houston hit the stage. Starting with the Super Bowl last Sunday, Hudson has been raising her profile after spending months in seclusion following the slayings of her mother, brother and nephew last October.
A smiling Hudson performed her hit "Spotlight," which earned her one of her four Grammy nominations, and got a standing ovation from the crowd. But she raised the bar with a pairing with Barry Manilow, injecting one of his signature songs, "Weekend in New England," with a lacking ingredient — soul.
Afterward, the Oscar-winner joined the audience (and friend Fantasia), stood in the front and danced and sang as Houston performed. Houston started off with "I Will Always Love You," but didn't hit the high, sustaining notes that made the song such a dramatic, stirring hit. Instead, she kept her voice at medium power, deciding to croon rather than soar.
But as she got into hits like "It's Not Right, But It's O.K.," her voice appeared to get stronger — and louder, and while she never replicated the vocal gymnastics of some of her past work, delivered a mesmerizing performance nonetheless.
The 45-year-old, one of the best-selling artists of all time and among the greatest singers, hasn't made an album since 2002. Then she was sinking due to drug use and a tumultuous personal life — a far cry from the princess image she cultivated since her debut in the 1980s.
But the singer is expected to release an album sometime this year, and unlike other reported returns, this comeback seems to be the real deal.
"She was on it, she was happy — she's back," said Foxx. "Everybody else watch out."