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REVIEW: CELEBRATION OF GOSPEL MAKES ROOM FOR "PRODIGAL" ENTERTAINERS





By Mona Austin

Recorded in Los Angeles on December 11, the eleventh installment of BET's Celebration of Gospel felt like a  welcome home concert for legendary R&B acts, as once wayward singers  found sanctuary on the Orpheum Theatre stage.

Hosted by actor/comedian Steve Harvey, the show unites gospel and R&B talent for an all-out celebration of the music that has shaped Black Music as a whole--the music of the church. By the end of the evening, however  R&B  stole show.

Representing the R&B side there were performances by El Debarge, Chaka Khan, Howard Hewitt, Chante Moore, Kelly Price and a surprise performance by Whitney Houston.

Without a doubt, Debarge, Chaka and Houston were the stand out acts of the night.


Joining in with Chaka, many swaying and waving their hands with their eyes closed,  feeling it, attendees sang: "You touch me and something in me knows. . .Right down to the wire. Even through the fire. . ."  And even though the the classic ballad "Through the Fire" was not "gospelized" everyone in ear shot of Chaka's voice knew this version was about her relationship with God.

When the band broke it down the multi-Grammy- award-winning diva reflected on her  past scorched by drug addiction which she said was defined by hard partying until she finally heeded her mother's advice to get on her knees and pray.



Punctuating what has been a remarkable comeback year, gentle-toned crooner El Debarge, sang beautifully his hit song "Second Chance."  Howard Hewitt  joined him on stage completing the appearance with  his "Say Amen," again transforming the audience into a big choir. Bowing his head, as Hewitt hugged him, Debarge who spent two years in prison for drug possession, appeared to be humbled and overwhelmed by the torrent of acceptance.

But then came the most jaw-dropping must see performance of them all.

As if being mesmerized by Kim Burrell's sanctified synchopation wasn't enough, Whitney Houston emerged to join her friend in a duet of Houston's song "I Look to You."  In sheer amazement, the crowd erupted with praise at the site of Houston.  Earlier last year, Houston reportedly canceled several tour dates due to alleged drug use relapse and vocal troubles.  Houston, who in 1996 recorded the "Preachers Wife" soundtrack and starred in the movie was vocally vibrant, holding the long notes the way she did in her prime.

These artists' "to-hell-and-back testimonies"  are no secret.  Their stories are all woven together in the urban entertainment lexicon by the thread of drug abuse and redemption.  Transparency truly worked to their advantage as fans readily embraced their passion-filled lyrical testimonies cloaked in the inspiring R&B songs they sang.

That night I witnessed the maturation of a show.  Celebration  wasn't so much about gospel music, but The Gospel and its ability to transform lives.

Celebration of Gospel airs on BET on January 30 at 8:00 p.m., ET.
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