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Artists Pay Tribute to Aretha Franklin

Aretha Parties; Jacko Leaves

Aretha Parties; Jacko Leaves

Grammy 2008 weekend began with a bang. Aretha Franklin got a big, eclectic tribute at the Convention Center and Michael Jackson left town.

That’s right: Jacko aborted his rehearsal and performance plan and returned to Las Vegas with his kids. "He’s telling people he’s sick," a source said. That’s Jackson code for "I don’t want to do this." He’s used it before many, many times, sometimes getting sued in the process.

On Friday, legendary producer Quincy Jones spent the whole day doing publicity for Sony on Jackson’s "Thriller" anniversary album, which he created in 1982. But Jackson was nowhere to be found.

Jones, who's 75, is rightfully reclaiming his legacy as producer of Jackson’s best albums, while Jackson retreats into his odd world. If Jackson shows up for the Grammys, it will be to wave and take a bow. But don’t count on that.

"We thought he’d just come on, do a little moonwalk, and that’s it," a production insider said. "But he’s not even doing that."

A concert promoter told me if Jackson can’t even manage an appearance on Sunday, "He’s finished."

Michael, here’s some advice: Surprise everyone; come back to Los Angeles.

Jackson isn’t the only no-show of the weekend. Operatic singer Andrea Bocelli cancelled his performance at Franklin’s MusiCares tribute 12 minutes before he was supposed to go on as a duet with classical pianist Lang Lang.

"He said he could tell it was all about Lang Lang and didn’t want to do it," an insider told me. The pianist performed on his own, and was brilliant as usual.

The other Aretha cancellation was Angie Stone, who got sick at the last minute. A backup singer named Carmen Carter filled in, singing "Think" while Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi recreated a moment from the Blues Brothers original movie.

Other than Franklin herself, who was sterling when she finally took the reins of the show, the night was a little weird.

MusiCares shows usually feature top stars doing the songs of the honoree. There was little of that Friday night. Instead, the highlights included Bebe and Cece Winans singing a soulful "You’ve Got a Friend," Anthony Hamilton did his hit, "Can’t Let It Go," gospel great Shirley Caesar went to church, as they say, and the trio of Patti Austin, Herbie Hancock, and Roy Hargrove wowed the crowd with a jazz rave up on "I Say a Little Prayer."

The rest of the night was uneven to say the least. Even though Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Sam Moore, Quincy Jones, and Josh Groban were in the house, they were not asked to perform.

Conspicuously absent were Franklin friends Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Etta James. Fantasia performed, with a splash of white in her hair and plumped lips. John Legend made Franklin’s "Daydreaming" sound like one of his own songs. Corinne Bailey Rae turned "Angel" into a nursery rhyme. An 11-year-old girl sang, inappropriately, "Baby Won’t You Call Me?"

Luckily the night was saved, first by the Austin-Hancock-Hargrove trio, but also a touching convocation by Rev. Al Sharpton, a beautiful speech by Tony Bennett about the importance of MusiCares supporting indigent jazz musicians, and then Aretha herself.

I guess the deck was stacked against all the guests anyway, because if Aretha’s in the room, you can’t win. She moved through "Chain of Fools" and "One Night With the King," then took over the piano with a tremendous gospel groove. Cool.

After the show, most everyone headed to the Four Seasons bar to figure out what happened and discuss what they’d seen and heard. John Mayer was on the patio with someone named Minka from "Friday Night Lights" who I’m told is his girlfriend and a TV star.

He was happy and animated. Groban hung out in the main room. Curfew was called a little after 1 because this is Los Angeles, the strangest place in the world.

A little gossip: Wonder and Bennett are going to do an album together, probably in March, for Columbia Records… the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum is opening a satellite branch in Manhattan. It will feature exhibits of artists, many of whom have been shunned by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Awards. Very ironic and funny…Warner M. (the M is for Mismanaged, Muddle, Mishegos, Miscellaneous, Meandering, Misbegotten) Group, despite losing millions and millions and releasing nothing, is still having a Grammy after-party tomorrow. Hilarious! Where are the stockholders of this publicly traded company? Where are the burning torches? The thrown rocks? The stockades?