Jennifer Hudson’s Brave Return | Beyonce, Etta James, & The New Yorker

Jennifer Hudson’s Brave Return

Jennifer Hudson is back in the “Spotlight.”

A few months after a horrible family tragedy, Hudson rehearsed yesterday afternoon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for tomorrow night’s Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy gala.

Hudson sang her hit “Spotlight” twice, once for practice and then again for TV camera crews who were shooting background material for interviews they’d already taped with Davis.

Each time, miraculously, her voice sounded richer and better than ever. And don’t worry: even though the Super Bowl broadcast used a pre-taped version of Hudson’s “Star Spangled Banner,” the Oscar winner can sing, sing, sing. There was nothing lip-synched in the Hilton ballroom, that’s for sure. If anything, the Super Bowl episode was because of the exigencies of being outside in uncertain weather.

Hudson has to be commended for doing anything in public right now, given what she’s been through. But it seems like going back to work, even a little bit, is a realistic distraction. When the star filled audience at Davis’s party tomorrow night even sees her, let alone hears her, there’s going to be a standing ovation like never before.

There should be a couple of those, anyway, in the hyperbole department, because tomorrow night’s other emotion-filled appearance will be by Whitney Houston. Yesterday the band – with a lot of Houston’s regular musicians—rehearsed a couple of her songs including “I’m Every Woman.” Houston was seen late in the afternoon checking out the stage and the ballroom; she has her own private rehearsal set to go, and a triumphant return performance lined up for tomorrow night.

Hudson and Houston weren’t Davis’s only “divas” on the schedule for Saturday’s show. Leona Lewis, multiple Grammy nominee, rehearsed and did a slew of TV interviews with the record biz legend yesterday. There are rumors of Kelly Clarkson performing her new hit, and Davis promised that rockers Kings of Leon will steal the show. Before Thursday night was over, Sean "Puffy" Combs, who owes his career to Davis, was set to rehearse a number as well.

The biggest problem for Davis, the lone remaining “music man” in a ravaged industry, is simply how to fit everyone into the ballroom. The Davis party was moved to the Hilton from the smaller Beverly Hills Hotel a couple of years ago because the “intimate” event had wildly outgrown the space.

But with the Grammy Awards taking the party on as an “Official” event—they’re giving Davis a special Lifetime Achievement award this weekend—and all of the record exec’s hot acts, even the Hilton is threatening to burst at its seams. Let’s just hope the usually difficult L.A. fire marshal just cools out, and gets into the rhythm of the night!

Meanwhile, despite the constant traffic-creating rain (don’t they teach Angelenos not to panic when they see windshield wipers?) the Grammys are drawing in many stars and usual suspects. Most of the action is at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny, which remains an unofficial music hotel. Yesterday at lunch, famed songwriters and performers Nik Ashford and Valerie Simpson ran into “Soul Man” Sam Moore at lunch, and then all of them reunited with Motown’s First Lady, Suzanne dePasse. It was only within minutes that Russell Simmons emerged from his own lunch and greeted everyone. And that’s just the beginning.

And there was more: Mariah Carey’s crew had dinner at Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood, while up at his Beverly Hills spread, movie director Brett Ratner entertained movie journalist Lawrence Grobel and twenty or so of Grobel’s UCLA students. The budding press corps had a slew of questions for the agreeable Ratner about his blockbuster movies. That wasn’t all: downstairs, Ratner was also hosting a party for young people in the music business. Luckily, his home comes equipped with an 80s disco (the place belonged to the late impresario Alan Carr) so there was enough room for everyone!

And over at the Producers and Engineers party for the Grammys, I ran into both Jimmy Jam Harris and Narada Michael Walden. Together, these guys are responsible for most of the early big hits by Mariah, Janet, and Whitney. Alas, they—like all producers—will never be part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They have gold records and Grammys instead.

Beyonce, Etta James, & The New Yorker

It’s only on airplanes that I get to read the really strange coverage of pop music in The New Yorker. Usually the subjects are so completely out of left field – musicians you’ve never heard of, and never will—that it’s almost amusing.

This week, it’s a tribute to Beyonce written from the perspective of outer space. Coincidentally, the Beyonce tribute comes just as R&B legend Etta James finally has commented on the sexy younger singer being selected to sing her signature hit, “At Last,” for the Obamas at the inauguration. I told you about ten days ago this was going to be a problem; no one listened.

Etta James has the right to be sore. Aretha Franklin sang at the Inaugural. No one sent for an Aretha update. Stevie Wonder was the star of the show where Beyonce performed. He wasn’t replaced by, say, John Legend doing his song. The Obamas owe Etta an apology and an invitation to the White House. It’s her version of “At Last” that they’ve cooed to all their lives. Beyonce’s tepid rendition was only recorded in the last year.

Maybe the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones liked Beyonce’s album, “Sasha Fierce” because he thought it was about him. Who knows? And to call Destiny’s Child the most successful R&B or pop girl group—no, the Supremes still hold that title. Name or hum five Destiny’s Child songs. Now do the same with the Supremes. With the latter, you’ve already gone past six or seven. So there.

So far, Beyonce—who is a very nice person, a sweet young lady with a strong voice and a hot look—has two actual hits: “Crazy in Love,” which was largely sampled from a Chi Lites song; and “Irreplaceable,” a ballad that saved her awful “B-Day” album. From Sasha Fierce, she has “Single Ladies,” which is really just a riff and a good dance video; and “If I Were a Boy,” a ballad whose history has been much discussed here.

If Etta James had tried to pull a Beyonce (add your name to a song written by someone else) on “At Last”—which was written in 1941 by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren—then maybe she wouldn’t be so mad right now. But James gets nothing for the millions of times “At Last” is played on the radio or anywhere else. If the new Performance Rights Act is passed, James will finally get her due. There’s a Town Hall meeting today at 4 p.m. at the Los Angeles Convention Center to discuss the bill, just introduced to Congress. Every hit singer in L.A. should go there—from Cher to Josh Groban to the venerable Andy Williams.