That's What Friends Are For
Patrick L. Riley celebrates women and his 30-year journalism career with the publication of That's What Friends Are For: On the Women Who Inspired Me. The entertainment reporter and on-air personality has been a field producer for The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Wendy Williams Show. His book, "That's What Friends Are For: On the Women Who Inspired Me," is the debut title of Dorpie Books. *Patrick L. Riley professional photos courtesy of Frank Ishman.
I’ve been blessed to work in the media business for twenty-five years, having started out in 1992 as a news reporter trainee and a local morning show producer in Atlanta. My move to New York City in 1995 would give me access to a larger playing field, first handling duties for Geraldo Rivera, whose primetime show Rivera Live I produced.
But perhaps I’m best known as having been a freelance field producer for The Oprah Winfrey Show for over thirteen years. Some would call that a career highlight given my assignments dispatched me front and center to interview the world’s notables. One day the focus of my attention could be President Bill Clinton at the White House’s Roosevelt Room on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 2001. On another day, in May of 2005, it was Senator Barack Obama as he and his wife Michelle attended Oprah’s historic Legends Ball, where she honored a host of African-American legends in front of an esteemed room of entertainers, politicians, and tastemakers. “It’s never hard for me to extol the wonders and beauty of black women,” said the future president of the United States. I’ve felt the very same way about black women in arts and entertainment from practically the womb.
Though a Southern boy since I was nine years old, born to two Savannah, Georgia natives, my Air Force-enlisted dad made a global family out of me and my older siblings Janice and Herman. We lived in places like Berlin and Tokyo for years before calling Valdosta, Georgia home. I came into my memories around this time, and I knew I was a bit different than other boys, though I didn’t think to call the feeling being gay as young as I was. But what I do know is that I loved to spend time with my mom and my sister as they watched the “stories,” more popularly known as soap operas.
And when it came to culture and the arts, usually I was mom’s automatic date to go to the Savannah Civic Center to catch the symphony orchestra or whichever Nutcracker came to town. Not Dad. Not my siblings. But me. My mother also spent a lot of dedicated time with me on my speeches, school play lines, and costumes for special performances or recitals.
While I enjoyed these activities, adults also yelled at me to stop acting like a “sissy,” signaling a concern that my behavior—that threatening hint of effeminacy—might not be fully accepted as I grew older. Given that I was sensitive about this and wanted to fit in, I began to deprogram some of what was natural to me. I took on as many socially acceptable forms of behavior that I could. As my siblings believed I needed to get my head out of a book and get outside to play ball, I participated in little league football and sixth grade basketball on the military base until my childhood asthma kicked in. And though I did snag a tackle or two as a center for the Southside Raiders, I couldn’t continue to play with them because the games were on Thursdays, our VCR was down, and I was not going to miss one more Gimme a Break episode starring one of my favorites from the time, Nell Carter.
Nonetheless, I did have amazing male buddies who were ride or die regardless of my being perceived as gay or effeminate, and they gave me a support when I was unsure about how to feel comfortable in my skin. I was still a little boy who may not have had much interest in basketball or football, but I did like to ride my bike, bowl, and play video games. And contrary to stereotypes, I’ve always hated to shop. So my beloved mother and I didn’t bond on that front as many gay sons to moms do. But on any given day, you could see me channeling my inner Debbie Allen or Leroy from Fame throughout the house.
I was captivated by what I saw on the screen, believing my unconditional-to-the-core friends were on the television and in entertainment magazines. I connected to these friends differently. They seemed to speak my language. My father says my passion for female entertainers and divas goes back to when he’d take me to the library and I’d routinely borrow books on the likes of Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, or Lena Horne.
I’ve always been fascinated with Hollywood since I first heard of it. If my mother snagged a National Enquirer because some headline grabbed her, or if she was working part-time and wanted to be updated on her CBS daytime stories and picked up a Soap Opera Digest, I always made those journals bonus reading after my studies. I was the master of TV GUIDE, reviewing and highlighting next week’s programming for family viewing and, before VCRs, coordinating who would watch what and where when schedules conflicted. Inside the pages of those magazines, in the frame of that box called a TV, wherever pop culture seduced its way into my life, I was hooked.
Women in arts and entertainment were the muses from my childhood who made me feel better when I was an unsure little boy who didn’t quite know how to live in his truth. These women could tear my heart out with a melody or a soliloquy in a movie, appealing to the outcast I sometimes felt like in my search for acceptance.
By high school, I had the jaded notion that there was a hard road ahead that maybe I couldn’t handle, reconciling my insides to what was going on outside. I wondered if I would ever come out as a gay man. Would I continue to go the course that society wanted me to? Could I marry a woman? These were big questions I had to start asking myself while peers were taking next steps into their intimate relationships.
Years later, having made it to college, I got to keep such concerns at bay in a swim of overcompensation and endless activities. I let my ambitions fly, taking extra classes at Clark Atlanta University while securing my liberal arts requirements at Morehouse. It was a lot to handle, but I juggled it all, got it done, and graduated in four years. Many classmates have shared that you could always see me quickly walking through campus to get to and fro a litany of appointments. What they don’t know was the voices of my favorite ladies were playing in my head, inspiring me to keep going as I gradually became more comfortable with my sexual orientation and came out to others.
There are a legion of live or onscreen moments that have shaped who I am. When the concert special Sisters in the Name of Love aired on HBO July 12, 1986, I was blown away at the diva-powered hour. The spectacular evening was recorded before a live audience at the historic Aquarius Theater in Hollywood and included performances of fifteen soul, gospel, and pop classics.
Gladys Knight welcomed Dionne Warwick and Patti LaBelle to join her onstage for a rendition of the single “That’s What Friends Are For,” Warwick’s 1985-86 No. 1 hit that she recorded alongside Gladys, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John. The single raised over $3 million for the American Foundation for AIDS research. Written by Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager, it became 1986’s biggest selling single, according to Billboard and Cashbox magazines. Statistically, it’s a palpable and perfect example of how the music industry responds when there’s a need.
“These two ladies and I have been friends for a very long time,” Dionne says near the end of the show. “And the fact is that we will always be friends. Always.” I loved seeing these women as sisters, still loving on each other and finding ways to lift each other and the world up. Their example has encouraged much of how I live my life today and who I will call a friend. Indeed, this special and so many more like it have set a tone for me also appreciating these friends before me, the people on the screen who have inspired me to be brave, open, and free with how I live. They may never know my name, but they bring me joy, love, and inspiration when I may not be able to conjure it from anywhere else.
These are special ladies who validated me immensely, and I found myself wanting to know more about these women. I wanted to be around them when I could. I wanted to genuinely connect with them and be a cheerleader or promoter for their work. Before I knew it, I was either interviewing these celebrity women, producing their projects, helping them promote their initiatives, and forwarding their campaigns. And it has been my pleasure to do so. That’s what friends are for, right?
I take my hat off to each and everyone one of these women. I’ve had the chance to tell many of them that they inspire me. This book is a love letter to those I haven’t told and it’s a follow up to those I have. Whether extended time or a stolen moment, there’s an energy that comes off of Beyoncé or Janet Jackson when I touch their hand to greet them. More than that, when we can connect inside such a window, we are one-on-one. And I share some of those rare anecdotes that demonstrate the love and light these women further represent up close and personal. Standing on the shoulder pads of my favorites is a new crop of women I’ve been interviewing and meeting over the last decade, including Brandy, Monica, Issa Rae, Tamar Braxton, and more. In the Instagram era, it’s a treat to connect to these ladies who, beyond the emoticons and tweets, show their reverence for their fans and LGBTQ allies. Up close, I’ve seen women who were born in the ‘80s and ‘90s deliver another generation of Black girl magic that inspires a new generation of fans. And for those like me, who still keep up, it’s a blessing. I salute these women as well.
Featuring more than twenty years in the business and just over a decade of blogging about pop culture and the positivity that looms around it, That’s What Friends Are For is part memoir, part entertainment diary of a TV producer and personality who has interacted with and interviewed hundreds of my favorites and the world’s favorites. I’ve taken the time on these pages to wax nostalgic and pop cultural on these women and what they’ve meant to me along with what they’ve meant to the universe. I’ll take you on the ride of what it felt like to interview so many legends and great female artists under one roof. I breakdown how not only an obsession with Miss Ross, but also all things Motown, would lead me to interview Motown Founder Berry Gordy alongside Diana Ross at the Opening Night of Broadway’s Motown the Musical. There are many names you know that are associated with Motown and its legacy. In addition to reflecting on that roster, I share information about the behind the scenes players who’ve become household names of their own, like songwriter and performer Valerie Simpson.
In addition to Oprah, I have had the opportunity to produce and work alongside other role models of mine in the media business, including Wendy Williams. And to have lived a life where I actually thought my generation would never experience another Billie Holliday, I have tales of icons we’ve lost too soon, such as Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, and Vesta.
You’ll read stories on more than black women in entertainment, as I explore a mix of narratives focusing on businesswomen, authors, journalists, reality stars, stage performers, and activists. Each chapter will include a scrapbook that I personally curated, including snapshots from my personal collection along with some special memories inside each caption. I am excited to share these photos, two of which include me alongside my childhood idol Diana Ross. Another shot taken with Beyoncé in Manila is particularly special because she serenaded me “Happy Birthday” after we took it. Each photo has its own special story.
As we all lead our busy lives, I have seen my social media timelines come alive of late with references to pop culture, nostalgia, throwbacks, and flashbacks. We say “Happy Birthday!” to the celebrities as if they are our friends. On Facebook, they are actually called friends. In my head, as long as I can remember, these powerful women have moved me, and I’m trusting that they move you too. Writing this project has been a labor of love. So much of what these women have produced and presented to us serves as a soundtrack or milestone in my life. Taking the time to pull those memories up and shape them into prose wasn’t always easy to do, but it was therapeutic. I revisited hurts from the past that I thought had healed, unsure about sharing such vulnerable sentiments to the public. My trust though is that many readers will relate.
If just one gay kid can find a spot of inspiration in this text along with others who can give support to the LGBTQ community, my efforts will have been worth it. I invite you to walk down memory lane with me. As you read, perhaps I’ll jog your own memories about this unofficial sorority of diverse women who have inspired so many.
In 2005, to get to Promised Land, the name my boss Oprah Winfrey gave her 65-acre estate in Montecito, California, I took a cab from my home in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey to JFK Airport. Due to the time difference time seemed to have stood still when, five hours later, I landed in Santa Barbara. In every direction I looked, blue sky was abundant, flanked by yellow beaches and gray mountains. Then it was my turn to drive up the winding roads, past one secluded estate after another, before reaching Miss Winfrey’s grounds.
By Oprah’s design, this Southern California mansion, likely built long after the Civil War, resembled a Southern plantation. As I walked beneath the village of looming live oaks along a cobblestone path named Hallelujah Lane, taking in the benefits of an aromatic breeze created by the nearby pond and formal rose garden, the estates moniker seemed fitting. Surely this oasis was God-endorsed.
This beauty wasn’t unfamiliar to me. In truth, some of my childhood was spent in Savannah, Georgia, considered too beautiful to be burned down during the Civil War. The locale was the focus of my first book, an assignment handed out by my 6th grade teacher Miss Lokey: “A Child’s View of Savannah Squares.” My goal at that age was to fit in and not make waves so I didn’t insist that we include extensive details about what went on north of Johnson Square, where trades were made for the enslaved who would provide the free labor for the Wickersham iron works surrounding the grandest homes. The book mentioned the Spanish moss cascading through the woods, but even at that young age I knew there once hung from the trees the strange fruit called a black man.
My understanding of local history was corroborated through scenes from movies like Glory, in which the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment in the U.S. army, parade along River Street, which runs along the south bank of the Savannah River.
Another work that spoke to my understanding of the past was the film adaptation of the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I have family ties to this Savannah-based story of the decade, which was a famed New York Times bestseller. While I wouldn’t meet the book’s Lady Chablis, a transgender woman and local drag queen and entertainer, until I was an affirming adult, my Aunt Tuga had been the maid for the work’s central character, Jim Williams. He was tried an unprecedented four times and ultimately acquitted (“rightfully” so according to my aunt) for the shooting death of assistant Danny Lewis Hansford in Williams’ Savannah home, Mercer House.
Imagine the mental and spiritual distance I had to travel to wrap my mind around where I’m from and where I was on the day I visited the Promised Land.
All my life, I’d witnessed black women do amazing things, from my paternal grandmother Daisy Mae Riley, who raised eight great kids, to my mom, who as a child contracted rheumatic fever and wasn’t expected to live past her eighth birthday. But she survived. This is the plainest fact for most black women—despite daunting odds, they survive. But the women who were being honored at Oprah’s home that weekend had managed even more than that, much more in fact.
I came to know this in a personal way when I learned Shirley Caesar was one of the honorees. Pastor Shirley Caesar is known as the Mother of Gospel Music, but the ambitions exhibited by this Durham, North Carolina baby girl of twelve kids was felt when she was ten years old. By thirteen, she was called to spread the gospel throughout North Carolina while Jim Crow laws were still in effect. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, restaurants refused to serve her and she suffered through all types of unfair treatment towards African Americans. Shirley’s perseverance and determination took her to North Carolina Central College where she studied business education. She eventually auditioned for Chicago’s popular female gospel group the Caravans, which was looking for a new member. She was immediately hired and left school for a life of singing and ministry, eventually tabulating one hundred and fifty concerts per year, volunteer work for the poor, numerous Grammy awards, and over thirty albums.
The first diva I ever knew, my mother, had been lead singer of the popular Savannah-based gospel church quartet founded in the ‘40s, the Georgia Roses who, like Gospel Hall of Famer Shirley Caesar, would perform extensively along the southern and eastern coasts of the United States, forging an international reputation along the way. But life, choices, and chance would lead my mother away from the path Pastor Caesar and these other legendary women traveled.
As field producer, I’d been chosen by Ms. Winfrey to interview all of the women attendees taking part in the three-day weekend. The goal was to simply be a fly on the wall in capturing the evening for archival purposes, and amidst that, the mission was to get quick sound-bites from each of the honorees and guests throughout the weekend. My work would eventually be used as footage for a future ABC primetime special.
Many of the women I’d admired as a child were now springing to life from the pages of glossies, television screens, and, on rare occasions, the stage. Imagine your job is to ask them the questions you’ve always wanted to ask. Such a feat wasn’t anything I had to imagine. It was my reality.
Diahann Carroll, who had spent residential time in Santa Barbara as black folks’ civil rights were still being wrangled, told me a year or so after the occasion that she wouldn’t have expected to see a black woman host this many black women at a black-owned estate.
Here’s ABC’s press release describing the work we did that weekend:
OPRAH WINFREY BRINGS A PERSONAL DREAM TO LIFE AS SHE HONORS 25 LEGENDARY WOMEN IN OPRAH WINFREY'S LEGENDS BALL, MONDAY, MAY 22 ON THE ABC TELEVISION NETWORK
As the one-year anniversary of her memorable Legends Ball nears, Oprah Winfrey brings to television her personal archival footage from the three-day, once-in-a-lifetime celebration honoring 25 legendary women in the fields of art, entertainment and civil rights. "These women, who have been meaningful to so many of us over the years, are legends who have been magnificent in their pioneering and advancing of African American women. It is because of their steps that our journey has no boundaries," said Oprah Winfrey.
This historic celebration included an unforgettable luncheon, a glamorous white-tie ball and a heart-bursting gospel brunch. In this one-hour special, Oprah shares her memories, candid celebrity interviews and intimate behind-the-scenes moments from this special event. Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball MONDAY, MAY 22 (8:00-9:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network.
The 25 legendary women celebrated include Maya Angelou, Shirley Caesar, Diahann Carroll, Elizabeth Catlett, Ruby Dee, Katherine Dunham, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Nikki Giovanni, Dorothy Height, Lena Horne, Coretta Scott King, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Toni Morrison, Rosa Parks, Leontyne Price, Della Reese, Diana Ross, Naomi Sims, Tina Turner, Cicely Tyson, Alice Walker, Dionne Warwick and Nancy Wilson.
The historic weekend began Friday with a private luncheon at Oprah's Montecito home where the "legends" were greeted by the "young'uns" -- acclaimed stars, including Alicia Keys, Ashanti, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Mary J. Blige, Brandy, Naomi Campbell, Mariah Carey, Natalie Cole, Kimberly Elise, Missy Elliott, Tyra Banks, Iman, Janet Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen and Alfre Woodard, among others. Throughout the weekend, the "young'uns" paid homage to the "legends" for their great contributions. World-renowned event planner Colin Cowie attended to every detail, and Grammy Award-winner John Legend performed his hit song, "Ordinary People."
On Saturday night, it was an elegant white-tie Legends Ball with notable guests, including Sidney Poitier, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Usher, Barbra Streisand, James Brolin, Lionel Richie, John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Diane Sawyer, Mike Nichols, Maria Shriver, Chris Tucker, Barbara Walters, Quincy Jones, Spike Lee, Senator Barack Obama and Tyler Perry, among many others.
The finale of the Legends weekend was Sunday's exuberant gospel brunch with spontaneous performances by Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick and Chaka Khan.
Being on standby to grab sound from any one of the amazing women at any time was exciting to say the least. I first began to get words from the guests at the group portraiture sitting helmed by Kwaku Alston, photographer to the stars, in front of Oprah’s home.
You’ve heard the expression, I can die now. Well, that's how I felt after that splendid weekend at Oprah’s estate. White folks had Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. Now black people were getting the Legends Ball.
These were the women who’d told my story and my mother’s story and my sister’s story on screen. They’d helped me celebrate the best moments in my life. Their voices had provided me comfort while being heroic in their personal lives.
Think of Legend Tina Turner, for years a victim of domestic violence and professional exploitation from then husband Ike until one day she’d had enough. In the divorce settlement, she gave Ike her share of everything except for her iconic stage name. Such a decision came from Nutbush City Limits, Tennessee-born Anna Mae Bulloch, whose talent and drive transformed her life of childhood abuse and poverty into one of rock & roll and domestic abuse. Still, she would continue to stretch and grow and show up to finally find her bliss, and I related to her story of going way beyond the past to find oneself.
In 1978, my family had moved from Norton Air Force Base in San Bernadino, California, our last install as an Air Force family, to Savannah, Georgia, my parents’ childhood home where they wanted to retire. Savannah in the late ‘70s had a modest tourist appeal, but indicators of its rebirth began to show up with the founding of the Savannah College of Art & Design, which began to refurbish the city’s historic buildings for classrooms and labs. For this little black boy who’d already seen the world as an Air Force brat, the move to Savannah seemed premature and stifling. Progressiveness wasn’t always felt or expressed by my brown people. And I’d begun to hear the murmurs, “Black folks in Savannah stay in Savannah.” There was this sentiment in many of the nooks I frequented in my new hometown that aspiring beyond a job that paid just above minimum wage with benefits was not the thing to do. From many I saw before me, their dreams consisted of staying put or going up the road to the big city of Atlanta. But even for those who tried to get away, I saw them come back, often depleted from the hand that life dealt them. I wondered “Was my childhood travel in the Air Force going to be the extent of my seeing the world?”
Diving into the pages of reference books showed me a world that I could continue to dream of while my pre-pubescent feet were planted on the ground for the next ten years in Savannah. Reading about my favorites, like Tina Turner, helped me know that she not only got out of St. Louis to travel all over the world as Ike’s lead-singing half, but later transitioned to a whole new level of stardom via her determination and spiritual practice of Buddhism. Artistically, she took chances that took her to the top of the global charts throughout the ‘80s with hits like “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Private Dancer,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” and “The Best” after many had counted her out from ever returning to the industry in a reputable way. And she did all of this in her 40s.
After a breakthrough transforms you, you can be who you wanna be and go where you wanna go. Tina Turner ultimately chose Switzerland as her place of residence and her beau of twenty-seven years, Erwin Bach, to whom she got married in July 2013.
I’m thirteen years into a loving partnership with a fabulous man named Anthony, and as many try to define when we should get married (as if it was legal when we first got together), we look to Tina and the choices she has made for her life as inspiration that you can do matrimony as you want to do it. No apologies and not by committee but by our rules.
Think of Legend Maya Angelou, whose expression of a “caged bird” gave this little black gay boy from the Bible Belt hope that one day he might sing out loud. At the age of eight, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She told her brother, who told the rest of their family. Freeman was found guilty but jailed for only one day. Four days after his release, he was murdered, probably by Angelou's uncles. Angelou became mute for almost five years, believing, as she stated in her first autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone...”
As a young child of eight or nine, I experienced a slew of inner turmoil from my awareness that I was gay. I was raised in a household that was very religious, with so many fingers pointing to this line or that line from the Bible exclaiming that if you’re gay, you’re going to hell. Wanting to please my parents and not bring them any stress, I kept my truth at bay. It would be another fifteen years before I could become comfortable enough to come out to friends, and another five years passed before I felt safe enough to come out to my family. But just like little Maya, I knew this caged bird would find the words. And I did.
Again, think of Legend Shirley Caesar and her interpretation of the song “No Charge,” which would lyrically prepare me for my mother’s passing when I was twenty-three years old. Though she was gone too soon, her sacrifice for me was “paid in full.”
Think of Legend Roberta Flack. Among the albums I would check out from a branch of Savannah’s public library when my dad would take me was Roberta Flack’s First Take, which included the transcendentally tender ballad “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
I’ve experienced a sense of rapture about so many of the Legends, including iconic model Naomi Sims, and the equally-legendary Young’uns, like fellow fashion goddesses Iman and Naomi Campbell.
When Aretha said “Respect” and Lena told Dorothy to “Believe in Yourself,” I got right in step as a child. The Queen and the Good Witch had spoken.
My mother disciplined just fine, but a good read from Phylicia Rashad as Claire Huxtable would get me right in line as well. In syndicated repeats, they still work.
And Rashad’s sister Debbie Allen who told you how to achieve fame is the same Debbie Allen who stood on the shoulders of choreographer Katherine Dunham, who’d passed away before the Legends special aired the following year.
And here they were, many moved by the experience and sharing their feeling as such. Cicely Tyson spoke to me from her lunch seat as she held court. Some of the other Legends were kneeling to greet the acting icon as if she’d pulled Miss Jane Pittman from the grave to sit with us and catch up. At the end of the luncheon where most of the Legends and Young’uns were exiting the gazebo under which the meal took place, Tina Turner said she didn’t think she’d ever see these women again so was grateful for the moment.
They were all so beautiful. A wonder that the absolutely gorgeous Mariah Carey wanted to make sure she had extra light, and the forever youthful Janet Jackson, adorned in faded, torn jeans to the ladies luncheon, wanted to get in the shade. Halle Berry figured all light was good on her. The sparkle from the freshly-placed black and white hoop earrings that Oprah gave all of the Young’uns may have been providing Halle some of her external glow.
After these three amazing women and many of their fellow Young’uns gathered to recite Pearl Cleage’s commissioned poem “We Speak Your Name” at the luncheon, Miss Ross told me in my ear after that heart-tugging selection that “Angela Basset could read the phone book and I’d cry.” At the gala, seeing Miss Ross and Smokey Robinson dance to Michael McDonald and Ashford and Simpson on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was next level. Still, all eyes were on then Senator Obama who, with Michelle Obama, was a welcome guest for the historic night. Tom Cruise and his new girlfriend Katy Holmes enjoyed the evening—calmly this time as it had been a week since he’d jumped on Oprah’s Chicago-based couch, proclaiming his love for Holmes.
Bebe Winans wrote, produced, and debuted a song called “Legends” that he created with each and every honoree in mind, referencing “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)” with Diana, for example. Near the end of the song, Oprah called out the names of all the Legends in attendance, and as the audience was already standing, the Legends stood one-by-one. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
And the glory continued into the next day. For those who had never been to church, they got the pure essence of it on Oprah’s lawn that wrap-up Sunday morning, where my boss introduced the worship phase of the celebration. Wintley Phipps performed a moving "Amazing Grace” while the Legends and Young'uns broke bread together and just enjoyed the afternoon. Bebe Winans created a magical moment in which he, along with Edwin, Tramaine, and Lanette Hawkins, began to sing Tramaine’s “Change.” BeBe floated through the audience on the lawn, handing the mic to some of the Legends and Young’uns who didn’t come to play but were ready. Natalie Cole jumped on the stage and joined the Hawkins for back-up. Shirley Caesar, who initially wasn’t going to be able to make the gospel brunch, secured a replacement at her home church and started the spiritual jam off with her freestyle vocal arrangements. From there, the mic just floated from diva to diva, including Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, Yolanda Adams, Valerie Simpson, and Dionne Warwick. Mariah Carey even hummed a little ditty, though she cautioned the hour was too early for her seven-octave range. In all, we got a gospel explosion on Oprah’s front lawn. On a lighter note, Kennedy royalty Maria Shriver joked with me that she was happy they didn’t hand the mic to her during the revival.
In one moment of sadness, Ms. Warwick and I spoke of the missing diva in the room, her little cousin Whitney Houston, who was invited to honor the Legends but couldn’t make it. I didn’t know any of the details then, but history shows that 2005 was a difficult year for the diva whose struggles with drugs began to intensify during this time. Several in attendance, including fellow songstress Patti Labelle, spoke her name with the tones of care and concern you’d expect from a loved one. Many of the women brought her up as an obvious absence and sent prayers her way. The world’s next impression of Whitney would be on her husband Bobby Brown’s reality TV program, Being Bobby Brown, which ran on Bravo. Houston was a prominent figure throughout the show, demonstrating to most that things weren’t good.
My only regret from the weekend, and it is an enormous one, is that I didn’t take a single picture. Not even one of me in my hotel meticulously going over my notes on the guests. For as long as I’ve been in the industry—thirty years!—I am never without my camera. I never forego the opportunity to capture the moments that I grew up seeing in magazines. But this weekend wasn’t about me. It was about these women and the opportunity to imbibe what I’d waited my whole life for.
So much of my life, and what has gotten me through, is woven into these wonder women. First and foremost, I am a journalist. My job is to tell the truth and get an accurate story, but in truth, my heart is in telling the uplifting story. Let someone else cover the sordid details regarding the woman’s prosecution, jail time, and fall from grace. I’m not interested in that. I want to tell you about Martha Stewart’s reincarnation as Snoop Dogg’s partner-in-crime. I want to admire the glorious talent of Vanessa Williams who continues to deliver on all platforms, from the first sound of the phone ringing on her debut single “The Right Stuff” to her Grammy-worthy ballad “Save the Best for Last” to her tour de force Broadway show Kiss of the Spider Woman to her more recent TV work in Ugly Betty and Daytime Divas. I want to confess how I still weep at the sound of Whitney Houston’s voice, a legacy of vocal excellence that will live forever.
My confession is that I’m a journalist yet also a fan, and this is a love story.