After winning her record five Grammy Awards on Wednesday, Lauryn Hill didn't head to the famed theme park Thursday.
Instead she went to the Rhythm & Blues Foundation's Pioneer Awards gala, held in a lavishly appointed tent erected for the occasion on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, where she presented one of the night's honors to Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles.
"This is the best part of my year right here," said Hill as she gave the award to LaBelle, Cindy Birdsong, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash--who had just performed a churchy, smoldering "You'll Never Walk Alone" in their first joint appearance in 31 years.
" 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill' is the album, but you guys were my teacher," Hill continued. "You are solely responsible for everything I do and everything I am musically."
And sorry, Grammys: The warmth and noncompetitive spirit of the R&B gathering, held annually the night after the big telecast, has made the event the real highlight of Grammy week for many industry insiders.
It's easy to see why. There was no shortage of magic Thursday, from incendiary performances by Texas blues woman Barbara Lynn, the songwriting teams of Nickolas Ashford/Valerie Simpson and Isaac Hayes/David Porter to inspiring award acceptances from artists who have been overlooked or overshadowed for years, including Garnet Mimms, Joe Simon and Barbara Lewis, Mickey Baker, Brenda Holloway and Dee Dee Warwick. The latter was presented her award by her sister Dionne Warwick.
And in addition to the reunion of the Bluebelles, key members of the Drifters (who are not allowed to use the group name due to legal entanglements) offered a spontaneous chorus of "Under the Boardwalk," and the soul group the Manhattans made a rare reunion as well. It all closed with a stirring, primal blues jam in which Lifetime Achievement recipient John Lee Hooker was joined by a guitar army led by Eric Clapton and foundation co-founder Bonnie Raitt. Smokey Robinson emceed the program and Maceo Parker led the excellent house band.
The foundation's goal is to help pay back groundbreaking artists, who, as foundation Chairman Jerry Butler said, "have contributed to the culture of this great country of ours," but in many cases received little or no royalties from their best-known work due to questionable business practices. To redress that, the foundation awards the pioneers inducted $15,000 each or $5,000 for members of groups, with $25,000 for the Lifetime Achievement nod.
In his own payback, 81-year-old Hooker donated his $25,000 award back to the foundation. Funk bassist Larry Graham, appearing on behalf of the Artist (a.k.a. Prince) and his NPG Records, presented the foundation with a check for $100,000.
But as Hooker said, it wasn't all about money. Much of this was just about respect. The Drifters' singers Bill Pinkney and Charlie Thomas were a case in point. They said they haven't received full royalties from many of their classic recordings and that they are not even allowed to perform as the Drifters, as the name trademark has been owned by others. (The trademark matter is in the courts, following a recent New Jersey ruling that two different people claiming ownership had no right to the name.)
The situation has led to reports that Pinkney, Thomas and Johnny Moore--a third member who died in December--were not on speaking terms.
"Does this look like I hate him?" said Pinkney, 74, planting a big kiss on Thomas' cheek during a pre-show gathering of the honorees Thursday. "It was other people who stopped us [from being together as the Drifters]."
Pinkney and Thomas said they hope to speak at a congressional hearing next month in support of proposed legislation giving performers clearer rights in such matters as name ownership.
On that note, though, the most resounding acceptance of the night was the first, when Judy Adams appeared for her husband, New Orleans soul singer Johnny Adams, who passed away late last year.
"Johnny never got any royalties [from his early recordings]," she said. "There was suit slavery and shake-hands slavery."
She then offered stern words to young musicians of today.
"If you don't have legal representation," she said, her voice rising in force, "don't walk, run to get an attorney."
Even the record company suits in the audience cheered loudly.