The person who received the most attention at Saturday night’s 33rd Annual Georgia Music Hall of Fame awards ceremony wasn’t an inductee. Nor is he a native of the state.
But try telling that to the packs of caterwauling teenage girls scattered throughout the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. They just knew that Justin Bieber was in the house, both to help induct his vocal coach, Jan Smith (aka “Mama Jan”), who received the Chairman’s Award, and also to receive his own honor, the Horizon Award, given to young performers who have made outstanding achievements.
He also performed a medley of hits from Smith’s students and was joined by the only guy in this town who could eclipse his razzle-dazzle – Usher, who sported a black tux with mirrored lapels for the occasion.
But let’s place the Bieber fever aside for a few minutes for a look at the rest of the evening’s proceedings with this year’s eight inductees.
About half an hour before show time, Samuel L. Jackson, on hand to induct pal Kenny Leon, bumped into Mother’s Finest guitarist John Hayes in the VIP reception room and told him he used to come see the band play at Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom all the time in the ‘70s and was just listening to “Baby Love” the other day.
Known for serving 11 years as the Artistic Director at the Alliance Theatre and making a mark on Broadway with “Raisin in the Sun” and “Fences,” Leon is currently working with Jackson on “The Mountaintop,” which opens on Broadway next month.
Jackson, who wore his trademark Kangol beret Saturday, is a friend since college – though Leon attended Clark Atlanta University while Jackson was at Morehouse – and their easy friendship was apparent when Leon thanked Jackson for flying down from New York for the day to be there.
“I do a lot of work around the world,” Leon told the audience, “but you made me the artist that I am. You gave me wings. No matter where I am, I am proud to say my home is Georgia.”
Backed by the Johnny Martini Band, Royal dug out his biggest hits “Cherry Hill Park” and “Down in the Boondocks,” before turning the spotlight to Buie to formally induct Cochran.
“I’m not used to microphones. I spent my whole career backstage,” Cochran said, before thanking Helen, his wife of 52 years, and giving his new Lucite trophy a kiss.
Though she’s the most popular mainstream name of this year’s class, Braxton, who actually hails from Baltimore but moved to Atlanta in the early ‘90s, received the shortest ordination.
Looking radiant, she blew kisses to the crowd and joked that even though she isn’t a native, “I consider myself a peach.”
Braxton noted that she was feeling a bit under the weather, but still sang a line of “Georgia on My Mind” in her husky vibrato before skittering off stage.
Seated on a stool next to an acoustic guitarist, a black tie loose around his white shirt and black vest, Bieber said he wanted to sing a medley from some of Smith’s charges and launched into Matchbox Twenty’s “3 A.M.” (she’s worked with Rob Thomas), Usher’s “U Got it Bad” and his own “Baby,” which sent the teen girls in the audience into waves of ear-bleeding screams.
Moments later, Bieber was joined by Usher, natty in a black tuxedo with mirrored lapels, and Bieber manager Scooter Braun to present Smith with her award.
Usher called Smith “a treasure to Atlanta,” telling the crowd about how he had lost his voice, but after working with Smith, “it paid off in the end.”
“It paid off kinda,” Bieber interjected with a grin.
When Smith came out to accept her trophy, Bieber smothered her with kisses, and then pumped his fist to amp up the crowd as Usher enveloped her in a bear hug.
“One of the greatest things about Jellybean … is that his heart is still the same. He’s the same little guy I met in December 2008,” Smith said.
Upon taking his award, Bieber said that since he moved to Atlanta as soon as he got his record deal, “I developed a nice family and friends…I would consider Atlanta my second home.”
As soon as he left the stage, about a quarter of the audience vacated the venue, too, off to follow the trail of Bieber stardust.
Longtime friend Alex Cooley presented the band with their Group award, saying, “For just plain old rip-roaring rocking and rolling, no one beats Mother’s Finest.”
The band appeared humbled and grateful by the recognition, as Kennedy, a spitfire at 64, noted, “In this business you know some people are gonna love you and some are gonna hate you. You have to stay on the path God put you on and do what you do.”
With only a pianist and bassist providing the musical backdrop, the three singers traded runs, with Usher eventually sauntering over to lean against the piano, Tony Bennett-style, to croon some of the final notes.