The 2011 Soul Train Awards chugged into the Fox Theatre Thursday night, and while it wasn’t a marathon production like last year’s seven-hour ordeal (or the nearly 10 hour one in Los Angeles before that), there was plenty of star power and nostalgia crammed into what will air as a two-hour show.
There were indeed awards presented during the three-and-a-half-hour taping, but out of courtesy to those who prefer to be surprised by such things, I’m not mentioning the winners here. Surely they’re floating around online if you’re that desperate to know who picked up the train trophy for Best New Artist.
The awards will premiere at 9 p.m. Nov. 27 on BET and Centric.
Set the TiVo from now because here are the top five “don’t miss” moments. But first, kudos to host Cedric the Entertainer, who burst onto the stage doing the body rock and the Dougie to Herbie Hancock’s “Rocket” and Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It” and was seamless and amusing all night.
“It’s good to be in the South. They sweet tea everything around here. I had a sweet tea martini last night,” he joked. He later took a gentle swipe at Herman Cain’s now-infamous Libya pause and later in the show headed to the balcony for a change of scenery.
But back to that top five…
1. Hearing Morris Day bleat the opening of “Jungle Love” was cool enough. But watching him and the crew formerly known as The Time break into those sliding dance moves and charge through a medley that included “Cool” and “The Bird” was an early reminder of how fun and funky R&B can be when done right.
Now known as The Original 7ven, the group of Day, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Jesse Johnson, Jerome Benton, Jellybean Johnson and Monte Moir were far more interesting to watch than the troupe of energetic female dancers in tiny sequined shorts bopping around the stage.
On the red carpet before the show, Jam said the band hopes to tour next year and the difference between The Time’s heyday and now is, “We’re older and wiser.”
2. Gladys Knight, one of two recipients of the 2011 Legend Award, first received a tribute of video clips featuring Elton John, Smokey Robinson and Marie Osmond. But the live accolades make the memories.
A new version of the Pips – among them Freddie Jackson and Kenny Lattimore – backed a parade of singers including Marsha Ambrosius nailing “If I Were Your Woman,” Mary Mary storming through “Midnight Train to Georgia,” their booming gospel voices a perfect match to the song, and an extremely thin Natalie Cole crooning “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.”
Cole introduced Knight as well, noting that, “She makes the best chicken and waffles in the South!”
The incandescent Knight, meanwhile, delivered a meaningful speech touching on race, Dr. Martin Luther King, James Brown and her gratitude to Soul Train king Don Cornelius.
“I have received awards over the years…but this one here is closest to my heart because it comes from my people. Only you know what roads we have to travel to get anywhere,” she said.
Knight, beaming her beautiful smile, summoned BeBe Winans on stage to duet with him on a soaring new song.
3. The recent death of Heavy D obviously meant a last-minute tribute for the awards show, and the show producers deserve credit for pulling off something simple and meaningful.
After a clip of Heavy D and the Boyz winning their 1990 Soul Train Award for Best Rap Album played, a cluster of red lights scanned the crowd and Naughty By Nature and Kurtis Blow sprung on stage to perform some of the group’s songs.
Before the tribute began, the audience was told during a set change break to find the small glow sticks taped under each seat. Those orange glow sticks were cracked for use and waved in unison as Blow led the crowd in a chant of “Nothing but love for you, Heavy” for several minutes, the theater alight in a spirited radiance.
The memorial ended with one of the rappers quoting Heavy D: “Be inspired.”
4. Another commemoration came for super-songwriter Nick Ashford, who died in August.
His lovely wife, Valerie Simpson, appeared at the top of a staircase and was escorted down by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
“My honey would have loved this tonight,” Simpson said in an unscripted moment that prompted some audible sighs of sadness. She continued with an inspirational speech about the power of songwriting, noting, “Your God-given talents are inspiring others.”
But the purpose of Simpson’s appearance was to announce that Soul Train has established a songwriting award in Ashford’s name. The first winner was awarded during the ceremony.
5. The other recipient of the Legend Award was Earth, Wind & Fire, who received a personal, heartfelt introduction by Malcom-Jamal Warner.
The actor and sometimes-musician shared the story that the first two albums he “borrowed” from his mother were Graham Central Station and Earth, Wind & Fire.
“’Shining Star’ burned such a groove in my psyche that I believed I could be whatever I wanted to be,” Warner said.
A series of musical tributes followed, including a searing rendition of “Reasons” performed by Robin Thicke, Joe and Eric Benet, who impressively handled Philip Bailey’s glass-shattering vocal escalations.
Atlanta’s Cee-Lo Green, who earlier performed “Fool for You” with Melanie Fiona on a snow-themed set, returned for an invigorating “Shining Star.”
The EWF trio of Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson gave a shout-out to Maurice White, the “one who started all this thing,” before engaging the crowd – and many of the performers from throughout the show – to share the spice of life with a sing-along of “Let’s Groove.”
5 ½. We can’t forget Wolf Blitzer, who, after last year’s hoot-worthy appearance with Doug E. Fresh, came back for a second round of ribbing with the master beat-boxer.
In a skit featuring the Soul Train scramble board, Blitzer did a few Dougie moves – which he learned last year – and then showed Fresh his newly acquired “beat box” skills.
Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene blog
Follow me on Twitter: @ajclifestyle