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Amid the rappers, it's still Green day

Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Usher, Alicia Keys deliver, but not surprisingly, the soul legend is the BET Awards' main event.

June 26, 2008|Jeff Weiss | Special to The Times

Watching Al Green sing live should be on any list of "Things to Do Before You Die." So it was understandable that at the rehearsals the day before Tuesday night's BET Awards, pre-show buzz revolved not around much-anticipated performances from ballyhooed superstars like Lil Wayne, Usher, Kanye West and Rihanna, but rather on the 62-year old soul legend, whose creative prime was once thought to have ended with Watergate.

Indeed, on Tuesday afternoon, the Shrine Auditorium lived up to its name, with Green and the Lifetime Achievement Award he was set to receive the next night, dominating dialogue between performers and producers.

"The highlight for me would be getting to see Al Green perform. It'd make my day," Queensbridge rapper Nas said. "I want him to sing 'Love and Happiness.' "

When asked whom he was looking forward to watching, Big Boi of OutKast, who would ultimately snag a Best Video Award for his role in UGK's "International Players Anthem," had a terse but fitting reply.

"Who do I want to see? Al Green! Hell, yeah," the Atlanta rapper said.

In its eight years, the BET Awards ceremony has earned a reputation for impressive star turns, its ability to consistently recruit A-list talent and its looser, more party-oriented vibe than the typically staid Grammys.

As a result, the show has thrived in spite of a difficult climate that has felled earlier competitors like the Source Awards and the Soul Train Awards, leaving BET as the preeminent urban music show, one that consistently garners respectable ratings and turn-outs from the premier names in the African American community.

Producer Ron Weisner attributed the ceremony's relative longevity to its ability to evolve yearly and its efficacy in creating surprise moments that ensure continued audience loyalty.

"We've had to build a lot of credibility, especially in dealing with live performances," Weisner said. "With the [Green tribute], we had issues in dealing with a timeless performer and timeless music, and it's a real challenge to step everything up, especially with so many other awards shows out there."

Naturally, Green gossip wasn't the only talk at the Shrine before the telecast, with the Moorish Art Deco palace transformed into a buzzing hive of activity. In the teeming Radio Remote room, artists including Common, Lil Mama and Mario glad-handed with reps from radio stations from Los Angeles to London, while in the Fire and Ice Gifting Suite, artists were offered silver-plated skull belt buckles, hand-painted fedoras and iced-out iPod covers -- even pick-your-own-ingredients homemade nutrition bars.

Yet the surfeit of swag did nothing to temper any of the artists' enthusiasm to perform the next evening, with the telecast's tone taking on the feel of superstars continually striving to one-up each other.

Show highlights included a poignant and emotional performance by West that leavened Young Jeezy's hometown ode, "Put It On." Meanwhile, Lil Wayne, basking in the glow of his platinum debut the week before, did an energetic celebratory romp through, "Tha Carter III's" singles, "A Milli," "Lollipop" and "Got Money."

But perhaps the most impressive and surprising moment of the night came dur- ing Alicia Keys' set, which gradually morphed into a '90s girl-band tribute featuring the likes of En Vogue, SWV and TLC.

Ultimately no performance produced chills quite like the homage to Green, with its John Legend introduction and appearances from Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton and Maxwell, who sang a variety of Green staples much to the crowd's approbation.

However, none topped the old master, who closed his own tribute with a two-song set of "Let's Stay Together" and "Love and Happiness," letting loose the full brunt of his skyscraping wail.

Still, it was Green's energetic rehearsal early Monday afternoon in front of a tiny practice audience of fewer than 100 people that struck the most vivid note, as the seemingly ageless Green crooned with a blueberry grin and still soaring, seraphic voice. To say nothing of his boundless energy that forced him at one point to playfully reprimand his backing orchestra, "Y'all are going too slow. You're playing the album version . . . this is live."

The effort in the more prosaic practice environment along with that celestial voice helped to explain Green's astonishing longevity.

"That's why people like Al Green last so long," BET Awards executive producer Stephen Hill said. "They always put in their full effort and never half-step it like so many others do."

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