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Whitney's Triumphant Return!

Whitney's Triumphant Return!

What a difference a year makes!

At last year’s Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy gala, Whitney Houston barely left her seat and didn’t even rise to meet Al Gore. She was tentative and fragile.

But last night at the Beverly Hilton, it was a fully restored, fun-loving Whitney who moved around the ballroom with grace. She spent a chunk of the evening away from her table with Davis’ family and hung out with Alicia Keys’ gang, including collaborator Kerry “Krucial” Brothers and manager Jeff Robinson down near the stage.

“Write some good things about me,” Whitney said, and we talked about her upcoming album. She’s healthy and focused and clearly engaged. She watched clips on the video screens of her past performances at Davis extravaganzas, I thought, with a little yearning. Maybe next year, she’ll be back up there.

Houston’s presence brought over a lot of stars. She and Usher exchanged waves from their tables. At one point, Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas — who was closely tailed by a bodyguard larger than New York Giants’ Michael Strahan, also there — bopped over from her table and shared a chair with Houston so the three songbirds could chat away. The bodyguard, however, would have nothing of it, and brought Fergie her own seat.

They weren’t the only top 40 divas in the house, ya know. In the next row of tables, closer to the stage, Janet Jackson was installed with boyfriend producer Jermaine Dupri, while Rhianna dined just to their left. Earlier in the evening, Alicia admired Rhianna’s gown, while Fergie (and her giant) came over to say hello.

I had to laugh about this bodyguard thing, remembering when I met the latter beauty some years ago and she introduced herself as Stacy Ferguson, a girl with great abs!

Meanwhile, Alicia — who’s opening the Grammy show tonight with Tina Turner and Beyonce — was worried about how late Davis was putting her on stage last night. “I have to be in bed by 12,” she said. “I need my sleep!”

As it turned out, she was probably an hour off. But it was worth it. When Keys took the stage to sing a medley of songs from her number one album, “As I Am,” she was simply sensational. Her “No One,” which should have been a Best Song/Record nominee (it was pigeonholed in R&B) is the anthem of the year. The crowd went wild, with everyone on their feet, and Wyclef Jean joining in on guitar. The performance was so energetic that Usher and Houston each left their seats and drifted to the stage. Pink danced with record exec L.A. Reid. The members of Earth, Wind & Fire even had their own little disco area, in a section where the spectacular Gladys Knight hung out with Motown’s Ashford and Simpson, Berry Gordy and Philly International’s Gamble and Huff.

Over all of this, Davis — who’s in his late 70s, folks, and acts like he’s 40, dressed in a custom Armani tux and exuding good cheer — presided with humor, grace, and wit. One by one he introduced to the stage the Foo Fighters, Daughtry, Andrea Bocelli, Fantasia, and his hot British singer Leona Lewis. Later, Akon joined Wyclef for a wild and melodic hip-hop celebration which, luckily, didn’t include the scheduled Snoop Dogg, who didn’t show up.

In the audience, seated at tables strung along the three “rings” facing the stage: one table with Rod Stewart — who accepted his introduction from the stage by cheerfully rising with a napkin on his head, son Sean and Rod’s towering wife Penny, plus longtime manager Arnold Stiefel and famed producer Richard Perry. Missy Elliott commanded a spot down by the stage, along with Petra Nemcova, Usher and wife Tameka. Anthony Hamilton, will.i.am and the Peas, Randy Jackson with wife Erica and Paula Abdul, American Idol creator Simon Fuller, CBS chief Les Moonves and Julie Chen, Soul Train inventor Don Cornelius, plus best-seller Jackie Collins, all had their tables.

Just to the left of us, a red-haired Ashlee Simpson and boyfriend Pete Wentz ate with Ashlee’s dad Joe who assured us they are “just dating.” Someone spotted Eddie Murphy’s ex Nicole, possibly with Strahan, while David Spade remained quietly tucked into a corner just near a table with the contentious Jimmy Kimmel and his girlfriend Sara Silverman.

Jimmy, it turns out, is a reader of this column! He correctly recalled an item here from five years ago titled “No Valentine’s Day for Mrs. Jimmy Kimmel,” even though I was in the middle of complimenting Silverman on her funny current Matt Damon video on YouTube. Kimmel then turned cold and didn’t want her to talk to me. “You wrote that, didn’t you?” he said. You only think later of the great rejoinders you should have said! Being a late-night talk show host doesn’t give you a free pass in life, Jimmy.

But I digress. There are people I’m leaving out, like Nikki Haskell, Beverly Johnson, Slash, Vivi Nevo with Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang, Denise Rich, Ann Jones and son Mark Ronson, Marvin Davis’s widow Barbara, actors Victor Garber and Julie White (not together), beautiful Sanaa Lathan, and even Tommy Lee! Plus, there were sightings of Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, Busta Rhymes, Anthony Hamilton, Feist, John Paul Jones — who joined Daughtry on stage, Emily King and Natasha Bedingfield.

There were also plenty of record execs. Motown’s Sylvia Rhone was introduced and got a big ovation. Warner M. (the M is for malfunctioning) Group’s curious Lyor Cohen, who’s about six-foot-six if you’ve never met him, came in for photo ops wearing a bright red velvet sport jacket, got snapped with some stars, and promptly left. Maybe he was preparing for his company’s party tonight celebrating their phenomenal losses and lack of business. Or maybe he just wanted to see what the real record business is like.

Indeed, there was a lot of talk about the ailing industry. But you wouldn’t know there are problems, listening to Davis’s opening remarks. “Music is alive, vital, and healthy,” he declared and meant it. As one of the last people to have hits, maybe truly the last real Music Man in the industry, he can say that.

Davis is upbeat that CDs still have a place in the world, that the business is just going through a transition and that somehow it’s all going to work out. His passionate party is like the last stand against the tsunami of corporate greed that’s engulfing the landscape. Without it, Grammy weekend — with bland nominees and a lot of prefabricated music — would be a very enervating experience.