Preachin' to the choir 

Heroes offers more booty-smooching than booty-shaking

Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel, June 5 -- How many serious music fans would consider paying $14 to park downtown and $200 for admission to an industry-slanted awards ceremony -- hosted by a Backstreet Boy, of all people? Probably not many. Yet last Thursday night, a grand ballroom was full of patrons. On closer inspection, however, most of the well-heeled attendees seemed somehow connected to the music industry and/or the honorees of Atlanta's Heroes Awards.

"Hello to all my friends," said Michele Rhea Caplinger, executive director of Atlanta's chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. As she opened the second annual Heroes Awards ceremony clad in an elegant, back-revealing evening dress, Caplinger was indeed in the company of pals and associates. Thus, the introductory big-screen video presentation, explaining how the awards honor locals who make significant contributions to the local music community, was akin to an overzealous evangelist preaching to his choir.

Final tallies of attendance and grosses of the $150-$200-per-ticket wing-ding were not available at press time, but a spokesman said proceeds (whatever's left after expenses of the posh party) will be divided between the Atlanta chapter's educational programs (75 percent) and NARAS musician's aid fund MusiCares (25 percent). The division was fitting because, as is the case with many industry-centric events, participants spent 75 percent of the evening touting their own virtues and endlessly thanking each other. The other 25 percent was dedicated to a few truly enjoyable moments.

The chandeliers hanging above the opulent eighth-floor Peachtree Ballroom sparkled much brighter than the dim banter between host Brian Littrell of fading boy-band heartthrobs the Backstreet Boys and his "model/actress" wife Leighanne. The Littrells tried in vain to be witty, but their lame verbal jousting received only obligatory, forced chuckles.

Fairing much better at cracking wise were 99X radio personalities Steve Barnes and Jimmy Baron as they introduced the evening's first recipient, their on-air cohort, Leslie Fram, director of programming for Susquehanna - Atlanta (WNNX and WWWQ). Baron's self-depreciating humor was most welcome, and the genuine sincerity of the oft-awarded Fram was touching. Shawn Mullins played a song in her honor, offering "Lullaby," the massive hit that Fram helped popularize. (Susquehanna - Atlanta was also a sponsor of the event.)

A giant golden replica of a Grammy award sat in the center of the stage like a Gramophone Buddha as legendary guitarist Duane Eddy spoke slowly and quietly about honorees Fred and Dinah Gretsch, Savannah-based president and CFO of Gretsch Guitars and Drums. Fred Gretsch stood silently beside his wife while she noted, "Music is what brings us all together."

By the middle of the evening, music was still in short supply, but guest Bo Diddley -- a longtime customer of the Gretsch company -- finally arrived to liven up the joint. Clutching his trademark cigar-box-shaped guitar, Diddley charged through a blistering version of "Who Do You Love?"

Atlanta NARAS Chapter President Jermaine Dupri, along with trustees Jan Smith and Phil Tan, introduced Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins of TLC as Heroes honorees. "The true heroes are the Lopez family," said Thomas, who then introduced the mother of her late TLC colleague Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez. Wanda Lopez Colemon thanked the crowd, adding, "God has given me the peace that passes all understanding." (TLC records for Heroes sponsors Arista Records.)

Host Littrell also evoked the deity during his unnecessary solo spot, performing a pitch-imperfect song he said was "on the gospel tip" and dedicated to the Lopez family.

Attorney Joel Katz (of event sponsor Greenberg/Traurig) introduced the final Hero of the evening, his very first client, James Brown. Pledging to "never forget where I came from and who made me," Brown singled out his sons, a doctor and even his dentist, concluding with a sing-along of "God Bless America."

But the absolute highlight of the night was an all-too-brief musical tribute to James Brown. Kelly Price performed an electrifying version of Brown's 1966 single "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," briefly joined by the Godfather of Soul himself. Massive Cee-Lo (also from sponsor Arista) and Joi, sporting a sexy thigh-revealing black dress, brought the show to a rousing, umm, climax with their steamy duet of Brown's "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine." A few people even danced in the aisles.

Dinah Gretsch was right. Music is indeed what brings all people together. It also makes enduring corporate orgies such as this one worthwhile.


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