America’s foremost showcase for black entertainers gets a long-overdue tribute on this handsome, tune-filled production. The two-hour show is so hip that one wonders how it wound up on network TV, the first of what could become the kind of annual event that music fans usually find interrupted by pledge breaks, if they find it on TV at all. Huzzahs to NBC for putting it on.
Loose format has guest stars honoring Hall of Fame winners by singing their songs, with some exceptions: Ray Charles pays tribute to himself by performing his 1959 “What I Say”; and Smokey Robinson demonstrates the relationship between gospel and R&B by singing “This Little Light of Mine” with the Dixie Hummingbirds and “Little Girl of Mine” with the N.Y. doo-wop group the Cleftones.
Robinson, who mentions that unlike some white artists, Bryan Adams always acknowledges his roots in black music, later performs a duet with the Canadian star on Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” Adams pulls the material off convincingly.
Al Green, Chuck Jackson, Ben E. King and Teddy Pendergrass sing their hits, Brian McKnight sings his recent “Love Is,” and all join together for a version of King’s “Stand by Me.” Flamboyant Green is downright amazing on room-rocking “Let’s Stay Together.”
Diana Ross pays tribute to Billie Holiday, Regina Belle trips lightly through Ella Fitzgerald hit “Mister Paganini,” and young group Shai dress up in natty suits for a witty rendition of the Ink Spots’ 1940 “Java Jive.”
Notably missing among performers is James Brown, another of this year’s Hall of Fame winners.
Show includes tributes to Apollo’s amateur night and the blues.Blues jam, headlined by B.B. King, features guitarists Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins and Jeff Beck.Sentimental high point may be tribute to comic Pryor. Show is hosted in casual, seemingly ad-lib fashion by Bill Cosby and Danny Glover. Tech credits, other than the occasional odd camera shot, are fine; sound is especially good.