At Black Broadcasters' Gala, Eclectic Glamour Is in the Air

Sarah Dash, left, Nona Hendryx and Patti LaBelle of the trio Labelle perform at the NABOB gala.
Sarah Dash, left, Nona Hendryx and Patti LaBelle of the trio Labelle perform at the NABOB gala. (By Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

It's not every day -- okay, hardly ever is more like it -- that such an eclectic and outsize collection of talents gets together like the get-together last night at the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters annual communications awards dinner.

It's a sure bet that the flame-haired diva Chaka Khan doesn't often hang out with the demure and stately actress Cicely Tyson. Nor is it likely that R&B and reality-TV star Keyshia Cole has spent a lot of time schmoozing with Attorney General Eric Holder. Maybe R&B pioneer Jerry "The Iceman" Butler has caught AndraƩ Crouch's gospel act, but that's about as close to overlapping as it seemed to get.

The reunited '70s trio Labelle and seven others were honored at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel at NABOB's 25th annual gala. The glam event (we note that these were very natty NABOB'ers) was a kind of all-African American Kennedy Center Honors, only without the TV special, the president or the funny medallions. With the exception of the still-very-current Cole, the recipients were honored for a lifetime of achievement, a la the KenCen awards.

Among the 800 or so assorted swells were Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and "Apprentice" star Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, who got up at a news conference and posed for pictures for no apparent reason other than that she's Omarosa and apparently that's how she rolls.

Butler -- an early leader of the long-ago group the Impressions ("For Your Precious Love") and then a solo hit machine of the 1960s ("Only the Strong Survive," "Let It Be Me") -- mentioned that his nickname grew out of an incident during a performance at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia way back when. When the theater's sound system blew out during his set, Butler just kept singing as if nothing had gone wrong. "That was the coolest thing I ever saw," a DJ told him later, and cool soon turned to ice.

Tyson, wrapped head-to-toe in flowing black silk, said she was honored to take on all the roles she did during the 1970s, but that she reserves a special place for "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," in which Tyson played the title character, aging from 19 to 110. "I don't remember my grandmothers," Tyson said, "but [Pittman] was the epitome of what I would have wanted my grandmother to be."

Cole, tiny and wearing an even tinier mini-gown cut all the way up to here, said being followed by cameras for three years on her BET reality show, "Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is," has been cathartic and instructive.

"It's gotten a lot of people to understand who I am," the platinum-selling soul singer said. "Seeing that my mother was on drugs and that I've never known my siblings, people see what it takes to get by every day. You just put one foot in front of the other."

Cole, 27, who was receiving the Entertainer of the Year award, later posed for photographers with Khan -- and the pair made quite a couple. Khan's explosion of magenta-streaked hair practically dwarfed Cole all by itself.

Holder ducked the press, but Patti LaBelle had candor enough for at least 12 people. "Get me a fan!" she demanded after performing "Miss Otis Regrets" with the group Labelle, back together after a 33-year hiatus. "Menopause! Menopause!" she said from the stage. In a self-confessional mood, LaBelle also mentioned her age (64) and that she has had diabetes for the past 14 years.

Despite the air of celebration, there were some sobering notes. Several people noted the parlous state of black-owned radio and TV stations, which often struggle even when there isn't a recession. NABOB, founded in 1976, has lost 45 percent of its membership since the mid-1990s, as old-line owners have sold out to mainstream companies or merged into other black-owned companies. The organization's members now own 245 radio stations (Lanham-based Radio One is the largest black-owned broadcaster in the nation) and just 13 TV stations.

"There's an old saying that when white America catches a cold, we get pneumonia," Jim Winston, NABOB's executive director, said.

But actor-comedian-radio personality Steve Harvey, who emceed the event, suggested in an interview that any station targeting black listeners had a greater responsibility. "Radio has to be far more than playing the hits," Harvey said before the show. "We're not just a boogie-down format. That doesn't move anyone's life forward. We have to dispense information, not just dispense a bunch of songs."

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