THE BOLDLY striped sign in the ballroom of the Sheraton Park Hotel announced the event: "1st Annual Rhythm & Blues Awards Show."
On stage, the hosts -- Jeannie Bell, an actress known mostly for an affair with Richard Burton and an appearance in Playboy magazine, and Lonny Stevens, who has had brief roles on television -- called the roll.
"Now for the first award, the category is Top Record of the Year by a Solo Artist," said Stevens, as he and Bell alternated the pronunciation of the nominees names in clasic awards-show fashion: "The nominees are. . . Johnny Taylor, Al Green, James Brown, Lou Rawls, Tyrone Davis. And the winner is. . . Johnny Taylor."
All eyes turned. But there was nothing to see. The missed cue grew into a long, awkward pause. Bell turned to Stevens, both of them left waiting on the stage. "Shall we tell some dirty jokes?" she asked.
Sure enough, Stevens told a story that ends with a raunchy punchline. The invited audience, dressed elegantly in their evening best, laughed uneasily. In the control truck outside, the show's director looked beyond the $1-millionworth of television equipment to the images supplied by the five cameras down on the floor of the ballroom.
"Oh God," he said, "this is embarrassing."
You won't see that blooper when you tune your television to Channel 5 this Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Instead, you'll see a smoothly-run 90-minute program officially called "The First Annual Rhythm 'n' Blues Awards Show."
Awards shows are nothing new on TV -- there are now more than 20 of them. This one, made mostly in Washington and videotaped by Tele-Color Productions of Alexandria, is for black popular music.To be sure, it will look very much like a cousin of the Grammies and the Emmys -- if there is an Emmys show this year at all.
But "Rhythm" does have its differences. This awards show was put together not by a network or a vast entertainment conglomerate, but by one man: John E. Jackson. And the winners of the First Annual Rhythm 'n' Blues Awards were not chosen by ballots, but largely by one man: John E. Jackson.
A black Tennessean in his mid-30s, Jackson had been first a disc jockey and then a Peace Corps volunteer in India before turning to television in 1971. Using the experience he had gained as a government media specialist -- he was involved in a media program to bring more blacks into the Peace Corps -- Jackson became director and producer of a syndicated variety show called "The Ebony Affair," which at one time was carried on WTOP.
"For five years," says Jackson, "I kept saying to myself, 'when is someone going to do an awards show for black entertainers?' I kept waiting and waiting, and finally I decided to do it myself."
But when Jackson went to the networks, he found they were cool to the idea -- because he wasn't a Dick Clark or a Don Kirshner, because investors were scarce (black ones more so than whites), and because there were already "too many award shows." "CBS televises dog shows," Jackson said resentfully, "but they won't televise a black awards show. NBC strung me along, ABC didn't even respond, and CBS said they had enough of that kind of show."
So Jackson went out and raised a bit more than $50,000 himself -- a nominal amount for a show which he estimated would eventually cost $140,000. Tele-Color Productions and several of the performers helped him by agreeing to work on credit.
"You see," he explains, "Tele-Color and most of the acts were involved in 'The Ebony Affair.' This is an unusual relationship we have, one that's built on trust. They know that when I get paid, they get paid."
Backstage, the entertainers, seated on folding chairs, watching the technicians, talking to one another or wetting their throats with tea or scotch, echoed that.
"I know Jackson personally. This is really a fine thing that he's done," said Dorothy Moore, 29, a soft-spoken woman from Jackson, Miss. Her song "Misty Blue," a big hit single of 1976, will win her the "Most Promising Female Vocalist" award on the show.
Nearby, Rufus Thomas, one of rhythm 'n' blues' most enduring performers, with 46 years of stage life behind him, walked around in his customary pastel cape, bermuda shorts and boots costume. This type of show was long overdue, he said. "I was practically born in this business. Our talents have been overlooked in the other awards shows." Roebuck "Pops" Staples, another veteran, was also happy about it. Jackson's production, he said, gives "more credibility to rhythm 'n' blues."
"And now the very talented winner of Artist of the Year. Who else but? . . . Stevie Wonder."
Wonder, however, was not there.
"We knew that we couldn't get Stevie," said Jackson, "because he was scheduled to be touring in Africa." But Johnny Taylor, The Staple Singers, Al Wilson, Millie Jackson, The Moments, Denise La Salle and other rhythm 'n' blues names were available, along with guitarist George Benson, who "crossed over" from jazz to R 'n' B and became the biggest "new" star of 1976.
But Jackson's lineup doesn't include, for example, Diana Ross, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Earth, Wind and Fire, or Natalie Cole. Though some of these artists were nominated for awards, none was selected as a winner on Jackson's show. On Feb. 19, however, some won Grammy awards in the balloting of the 4,000 members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
"Some people's schedules were tight, and we only dealt with people who were cooperative," said Eddie Davis, a Memphis agent hired by Jackson to acquire talent for the show, when asked about the absence of some of rhythm 'n' blues' biggest and most familiar names from the line-up.
"I went by the basis of what Cashbox, Record World and Billboard report," said Jackson, explaining the process of selecting winners. "Of course, if they don't agree on a particular category, then I have to go to other things to make a decision. And I didn't use all the categories the magazines have. I only picked the major ones."
This procedure sets Jackson's show apart from a similar television awards show, the Ebony Entertainment Awards, which is based on a mail-in poll of Ebony magazine's 5-million monthly readership. (Ebony's syndicated television show is produced by Merv Griffin Productions).
"The final decision was always Jackson's" said William Council, a friend of Jackson's from the Peace Corps days and instructor at Washington Technical Institute who handles public relations for Jackson's "J.E.J. Productions."
"Warner Brothers and TK Records helped a lot," Jackson explained. "I was disappointed at the reaction of the other record companies, especially Columbia." The gian Warner Brothers combine, which is trying to increase its share of the black record-buying market, was instrumental in arranging the appearances of Benson and the Staple Singers, says Jackson, and also supplied a tape clip of Parliament-Funkadelic. TK Records, a small, Miami-based independent label, supplied four acts: Benny Lattimore, Betty Wright, Dorothy Moore and K. C. and the Sunshine Band, the last appearing in performance on videotape.
"The only person who's been difficult," Jackson remarked during an editing session several weeks ago, "is Natalie Cole and her manager. If we can't come to an agreement with them, then I'm just going to cut the category she won right out of the show. I've got plenty of other things to put in that hole."
"John wants us to bring in George Benson's 'This Masquerade' at about four or four-and-a half minutes."
It's mid-February, a week or so after the taping of the show, and director Greg Robertson and his crew are sitting in a studio at the Tele-Color Productions office, trying to boil down the approximately three hours of video-taped performances and chatter into 74 minutes of television. They've been through the tape once, looking for places to insert their two-minute commercial breaks, and now they're looking for flaws in the performances.
Aside from George Benson's 10-minute version of "This Masquerade," which has to be edited because it's imply too long, there's a problem with Johnny Taylor. From a distance, his performance of "Disco Lady" looks fine, but every time the camera moves in for a closeup, it's obvious that the words Taylor is mouthing don't match what's being heard on the sound track.
"He's not singing in synchronization with the lip-synch," Robertson tells Jackson.
"Yeah, I know," Jackson answers. "You know, Johnny was supposed to actually sing it live to a tape of the music, but we ended up having to lip-synch it. He even had to be reminded to come over and accept the award after singing the song."
"That's a lie," said Taylor's manager, Henry Fisher, when reached by phone. "They were supposed to supply the music tracks, and they never did. The whole thing was a poor production from start to finish."
Jackson claims Taylor had been drinking. "I always have a couple of Bloody Marys before this kind of show," is Taylor's answer, "but nothing more than that."
Besides WTTG, "The Rhythm 'n' Blues Awards" will be shown on 52 other stations. All World Telefilms Sales handled the distribution. Said Stan Rudick of WTTG, "It's a good event to bring to the public. It appeals to the community as a whole."
"It's easier to sell this kind of show in secondary markets, especially in the South," said Jackson. "Places like Jackson, Miss., Baton Rouge and Monroe, La., they're the ones who picked it up right away."
"It was harder to sell in the primary markets. We sold rights for New York and D.C. to Metromedia, but in Chicago we it was almost impossible to find a buyer. In Baltimore it's going to be on a UHF channel. I could have sold it to a VHF station, but I felt that I had to give the guy who carried 'The Ebony Affair' first crack at it."
Selling the 16 minutes of commercials also presented problems. "The companies that sell black products wouldn't buy time," said Jackson, "but the general products companies were interested right away, and they're the ones whose commercials you'll see most of."
Jackson rattles off a list that sounds like a Who's Who of corporate America. "Bristol-Myers has bought three 30-second spots, General Foods a 60-second spot and two 30-second spots," he says, reciting the roll from memory. "Schick will have spots for Listerene. Certs and their cough syrup. Pepsi, Miller beer, Kodak, Avon, Colgate, Lever Brothers, and Warner Lambert products all have bought time. A lot of these same companies were involved with the 'Miss Black America' pageant."
The profits, says Jackson "will be plowed back into 'Ebony Affair,' and the profits from that will help for next year's 'Rhythm 'n' Blues Awards' show. Some of the acts have already promised to come back, and they want to help us in planning next year's show."
Even with the existence of some small record companies, a handful of clubs and arenas with national reputations, Washington seems a strange place for a national music event. The centers of television production are in Los Angeles and New York, as are the best-known writers, musicians and technicians.
One reason Washington was chosen as the site of his show, says Jackson, was to attract the political community.But only City Council members Douglas Moore and John Wilson and White House staffer Larry Bailey were spotted in the audience. Another reason, said Bill Council, was that Washington is the third largest AFTRA market in the country.
Originally, however, the "Rhythm 'n' Blues Awards" were supposed to have been presented in Las Vegas. "We were going to do it at the Las Vegas Hilton, but they wanted too much money up front," said Jackson. That's when he turned to Washington and first settled on the Shady Grove Music Theater in Rockville.
"It's their down season and they agreed to $1,000 for three days originally," reported Jackson. "It was going to be Shady Grove up until almost the last moment, but when we came up with the money and it looked like it was going to come through, they kicked the price up to $6,000.
"That's simply not true," said Charlie Blum of the Shady Grove Music Theater in Rockville. "What actually happened was that he wanted to do a straight trade deal, with no cash. He'd give us tickets in return for the hall. We didn't want to do that. Our rental agent quoted him a price of $6,000 from the start, the same rate that we give everybody. He said 'I'll get back to you,' but never did."
"We got a good deal from the Sheraton," said Jackson "but it was too late for us to have our rehearsals there. They knocked $1,000 off their price in return for us showing pictures of the hotel when we go to commercials."
"I've been planning this since October 1975," said Jackson. "Originally it was going to be 'Awards Show '75.' I had the sponsors and the budget, but I couldn't get it on the network.
"Let me tell you, a dude with a family couldn't do this. I'm by myself, so I can. But nobody else could have afforded to play this kind of game."