You really had to be there Saturday night at Carnegie Hall to see Elton John put on pearls and sing "And Then He Kissed Me."
Or to watch Sting — who we all know loves to pull off his shirt — strip to the waist to raise money during a live auction at the Pierre Hotel.
All of this was for the 11th annual Rainforest Foundation concert, a brilliant evening of great fun and poignancy.
For starters, Sting, Elton, and James Taylor anchored the evening — organized by Trudie Styler, aka Mrs. Sting, a lady who has become a formidable force in New York fundraising circles. The three men led the first hour of the night as a memorial to George Harrison — and it was unexpectedly moving. The trio performed their own version of Harrison's hit "Give Me Love" and were later joined by famed British Jeff Beck guitarist on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Sting and Taylor, whose miraculous voice was one of the night's standouts, collaborated on "If I Needed Someone." Elton gave a lovely solo performance of "Something," and the segment's finale, "My Sweet Lord," featured Harrison's mentor and old friend, Ravi Shankar, with his daughter, Anoushka.
In fact, it was Ravi Shankar whose speech transformed the annual concert into a celebration of Harrison's life. Looking a little like Yoda in a bright white robe, the 82-year-old Shankar told the audience, "George was like my son, a disciple, and a friend. We met in the United Kingdom in 1966, and then went to India together in 1967. He was so much affected by India and so pained by disharmony around the world…"
Shankar, who was introduced to Americans by Harrison at the 1971 Concert for Bangla Desh, said the introspective ex-Beatle had turned to gardening over the last 15 years. "He was happy to spend more time with his plants than with his music."
The second half of the Rainforest Concert was much different — a tribute to early '60s, pre-Beatles pop that found Elton, Taylor and Sting performing in gold and silver lame jackets as the Miracles while Smokey Robinson — in a lush, rich, vocal — performed his old Motown hits. Elton not only sang the aforementioned Phil Spector hit, but also sang the female lead of "Shop Around" and "My Guy."
Wynonna Judd, '60s icon Lulu, a screaming Patti LaBelle and newcomer Rebekah Del Rio also got big numbers — Patti reviving "Lady Marmalade" and Wynonna mugging with Sting on "You've Lost That Loving Feeling."
But the big surprise of the show was an appearance by Nina Simone, the legendary — and I mean legendary — expatriate American jazz, blues and soul singer. Simone, now 69 years old, came from France for the occasion and although she seemed fragile during the Harrison tribute singing "Here Comes the Sun," her return in the second half of the show was glorious.
Seated at the grand piano center stage, she started with "Ne Me Quittez Pas," and then played her signature song, "My Baby Just Cares for Me." From the opening notes of that song on the piano, I really thought: now I've heard everything. Magnificent.
And even though Simone seems slowed by age — she was clearly moved and welled up with tears several times — she's very much "with it." Twice she instructed the audience to give her a hand, and even admonished us to buy her records. She's no slouch. Her appearance at the show was a coup for Trudie and Sting. Later Trudie said with a rueful laugh, "When I heard 'Ne Me Quittez Pas'" — which means 'Don't Leave Me' — "that was my song. When I think of all the men who threw me over when I was younger!"
And what of that auction? Well, with Revlon's Ron Perelman (and beauteous wife Ellen Barkin, who spent the night getting chummy with supermodel Linda Evangelista) in the room among many heavy hitters for the after concert dinner at the Pierre, there was sure to be some commotion. Several of the items offered went for a lot of money — Harper's Bazaar editor Glenda Bailey was crushed when she didn't win a walk-on part in the final season of Friends.
But Sting did steal the show completely. When the auctioneer offered an answering machine message custom made by the singer for the high bidder, the numbers only got up to around $30,000. Knowing his true value added, Sting leapt into the middle of the dining room and began to perform a strip tease — ending with the removal of his shirt, a lot of applause, some fainting women, and a high bid of $100,000!
It's so weird here in 2002 — I remember back in 1978, calling New York's late rock station WNEW-FM and begging them to play "Roxanne," by the Police. They refused. Now Sting is an institution — and a mensch, although I had to explain to him what that is. A good guy. A charitable guy. He rolls up his sleeves, as do Trudie and Elton, for so many good causes. They're the establishment now. And thank goodness for that.
For weeks now my colleague Liz Smith has been harping away about Elaine Stritch's one woman show, At Liberty. In fact, for years Liz has been telling us how brilliant Elaine Stritch is! After a while you think, come on now!
Well, on Friday night I did learn why Liz Smith must be obeyed always. Stritch's show at the Neil Simon theater is an extraordinary evening in the theatre and must not be missed (it's a limited run, so hurry). She will undoubtedly receive a special Tony Award for this remarkable achievement, but she should really get the regular Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.
At Friday night's show, as at all shows, the audience was packed with celebrities. The formidable actor Ian Holm — known to you maybe for Lord of the Rings but famous for roles in The Sweet Hereafter and Chariots of Fire — was in attendance, along with Alan Rickman, David Hyde Pierce and James Naughton.
Stritch is famous for her role in Stephen Sondheim's landmark musical Company. She sang a song called "Ladies Who Lunch," about the empty lives of the women whom Tom Wolfe later labeled "Social x-rays" in The Bonfire of the Vanities. If you get the DVD of the making of the Company album — a classic documentary by D.A. Pennebaker — you'll see Elaine's equally famous attempt at getting the song right. But I digress: Who was sitting front and center Friday night? The ultimate social X-ray, Nan Kempner, with her husband, Tom. Who knows what she thought as Stritch outdid herself on "Ladies Who Lunch?" It sent chills up the spine.