By Joy Childs
Sentinel Contributing Writer
After Whitney Houston and Kim Burrell brought the house down at BET’s gospel celebration taping, comedic host Steve Harvey revealed that he’d purposely moved from center stage to the back of the theatre just so that he could witness the reaction when Ms. Houston surprised the audience and joined Burrell, one of gospel’s most recognizable voices. And react, they did, all who could leaping to their feet to catch a glimpse of the never-better-sounding pop diva and screaming their delight at the tops of their lungs. In what truly should have been the finale to a very long and arduous taping of the show, the two combined their formidable gospel talents on the song R. Kelly wrote and produced for Houston, “I Look to You.” A-ma-zing!
Actually, everyone on the bill was a showstopper-from the opening, welcoming video of Bishop T.D. Jakes, to the posthumous tributes to Walter Hawkins and Albertina Walker, to the closing by Evangelist Beverly Crawford, who roused the crowd with her latest single as she declared, “It’s About Time for a Miracle,” along with Dr. Bobby Jones.
Miracle seekers got the kickoff blessing from Kirk Franklin, who got the party started and, donned in his hip-hop gear, went, as usual, waaay beyond gospel to ultra-funk, James Brown terrain. In an equally energetic follow-up later on, Franklin joined Israel Houghton on the latter’s recent “Mercies” track, the standout from his recent “Love God, Love People: The London Sessions,” CD, which in fact features Franklin.
For traditionalists with a contemporary bent, what fun to see the heavyweight lover of gospel, Rance Allen, doing a shuffling kind of holy dance to the group’s “Something About the Name Jesus.” Pastor Smokie Norful teamed with Myron Butler in a nearly earth-shattering (seriously, the Orpheum balcony could be felt bouncing up and down!), outstanding rendition of “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord.”
Aside from the Houston-Burrell duet, another heart-stealing duo saw El DeBarge first open the set on piano with the title track from his latest (and, in light of recent events, aptly titled) and Grammy(r)-nominated “Second Chance” CD. Then, in a fabulous production coup, DeBarge was joined by a no-better-choice-than Howard Hewett on his beloved “Say Amen” (i.e., “I wanna thank you, God, for giving me one more chance. . .”) The two’s sweet falsettos, truthful and soulful, invigorated the audience, which roared its hearty approval.
Then there was Chaka, who turned one of her classics, “Through the Fire,” on its head and used it to sing her testimony about being a naughty, partying mom who, back in the day, didn’t make enough time for her kids, then spoke of how God had delivered her. (Her sentiments were seconded by Harvey, who, during one of his many monologues, told of a time he’d seen her on a plane when “she wasn’t doing so well.”)
A video tribute to Hawkins (1949-2010) and Walker (1929-2010) featured comments by Pastor Shirley Caesar, Edwin Hawkins, Dr. Bobby Jones, Donnie McClurkin, Dorothy Norwood, Bebe Winans, while the performance tribute to the two legends starred LeAndria Johnson, Jessica Reedy, Kathy Taylor, Byron Cage and Smokie Norful singing four of Hawkins’ and Walker’s most popular tunes, including “Thank You, Lord, for All You’ve Done For Me.”
Sister gospel duo Mary-Mary, who “grew up celebrating gospel,” pranced and danced across the staging, saying “Something Big Just Happened to Me,” accompanied by an 18-voice choir. VaShawn Mitchell’s “Nobody Greater Than You,” with Israel Houghton on guitar; James Fortune and FIYA (“I Believe”); Jonathan Nelson and Purpose (“Expect Your Great”); Earnest Pugh (“Shower Down”); Kelly Price; and Sunday’s Best rounded out the super-stellar list of performers. Esteemed guests included Pastor Andrae Crouch as well as the cast of the upcoming BET original show “Let’s Stay Together.” Angela Bassett, Keith David and Hill Harper added dramatic presence to the celebration.
Harvey, looking very svelte, handled his hosting business with his usual dead-on (but surprisingly testy, periodically having to appeal to his wife to chill him out. Was it because he too was exhausted from the long taping?) focus on church folk, particularly their non-churchgoing outfits and shoes.
The show airs next January 30.