Crew members work on the set for the 2012 BET Awards at the Shrine Auditorium… (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles…)
When Whitney Houston passed away 24 hours before this year’s Grammy Awards, producers of the telecast were forced to scramble to figure out the most appropriate way to honor the fallen pop star and remain sensitive to the news that had sent a crippling shock wave through the music industry.
In the hours following the news, Grammy executive producer Ken Ehrlich and his team tapped former “American Idol” diva Jennifer Hudson for an understated yet poignant version of Houston’s signature “I Will Always Love You” and show host, LL Cool J, began the ceremony with a semi-impromptu prayer.
While attention has turned to what the BET Awards, which air live Sunday, have planned to honor Houston, executives couldn’t help but recall 2009’s telecast that had to be revamped following the passing of Michael Jackson.
“I empathize with the Grammys a lot, to have that type of tragedy a day, or two days, before your show really changes your whole perspective,” said Debra Lee, chairman and chief executive of BET. “Michael died on that Thursday [before the Sunday telecast], so we really didn’t have many weekdays to turn it around. But it was a labor of love.”
“The Grammys did a good job. LL Cool J was really great,” Lee said. “But it’s a thin line between turning the whole show over to someone and paying tribute to him.”
Following Jackson’s death, the 2009 BET show had to be hastily reorganized into a celebration of Jackson and his music.
BET Awards executive producer Stephen Hill is mum on details regarding the portion of the show dedicated to Houston, but the network confirmed the tribute would be led by the late singer’s mother, the ultimate stamp of approval.
Hill said he started fielding questions about what the network would do the day after Houston, 48, was discovered in her hotel room at the Beverly Hilton. She died as a result of drowning, with heart disease and cocaine use contributing factors, hours before mentor Clive Davis' annual pre-Grammy gala.
“Our Whitney tribute is so right, it’s so classy,” Hill promised. “I think her fans, her friends and her family will love it. Her family obviously understands what we are trying to do because Cissy Houston is a part of it -- she understood we wanted to take care of her legacy and she’s onboard. It’s what our audience wants, and it’s what we want to deliver. It’s the closure that people will feel, and felt they haven’t had elsewhere.”
BET is still faced with the challenge of feting Houston without neglecting the list of heavyweights in the community who have passed since last year’s telecast: Beastie Boys’ Adam "MCA" Yauch, Heavy D, Sylvia Robinson, Nick Ashford, Donna Summer, Etta James, Don Cornelius and Amy Winehouse (who died a month after last year’s ceremony) are just a few.
Hill didn’t want to give away any plans -- though we overheard that R&B chanteuse Chanté Moore could have a role in the tribute to Summer –- but said he’s pleased with the “unique” way BET will pay tribute.
“A lot of people throw names on a board and call it a day,” he said. “Our goal is to celebrate the art and lives of those who passed.”
Lee agreed that the last year has presented a particular challenge, especially as they don’t want to slight anyone.
“You don’t want to turn it into a memorial service" though, Lee said. “It’s also a celebration of music and artists that are alive. You don’t want to make it too much of a downer. But this has been a tough year for black artists.”
Follow me on Twitter @GerrickKennedy