Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, Dionne Warwick, Phoebe Snow and Eartha Kitt were just some of the stars who turned up on Saturday in New York to record a charity tribute version of Nile Rodgers' Sister Sledge hit "We Are Family." On Sunday, another group including the Pointer Sisters, Taylor Dayne, Jackson Browne and Deniece Williams, added their talent to the project in Los Angeles.
Diana Ross was slated as the star of this event. She doesn't do much charity work and isn't seen that often. But the night before she sang "America the Beautiful" at the New York Mets game at Shea Stadium, it seemed that the Diva of all divas was trying to be a team player. All I can tell you is, when she was a child, Diana Ross must have gotten an F for "plays well with others." But more on this in a minute.
If you don't know Nile Rodgers' name, let me tell you that he produced Chic hits like "Le Freak (C'est Chic)," Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," the B-52s hit "Love Shack," David Bowie's "Let's Dance," Madonna's "Like a Virgin" and Diana Ross' "Upside Down." And that's just to name a few. So when Nile put out the word that he was going to re-record "We Are Family" to raise money for World Trade Center victims and families, the stars all showed up.
The place was Avatar Recording Studios on the West Side of Manhattan. On a beautiful sunny day when they could have been doing so many other things, Nile's friends came pouring in. They were joined by New York City firefighters, cops, and Port Authority police, all of whom you'll see in the video when it debuts next week. It was a joyous time, but don't worry, it wasn't all earnest. There was gossip, and lots of it.
The names, the names: Valerie Simpson and Nikolas Ashford, writers of Motown classics like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," not to mention "I'm Every Woman"; the Foreigner's Mick Jones; sultry R&B singer Angie Stone; rocker Patti Smythe with husband John McEnroe; music innovator Laurie Anderson; actress Rosie Perez; B-52s' Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson; The Sopranos' Aida Turturro and Steve Van Zandt (who'd just performed on the telethon the night before with Bruce Springsteen); TV talk show hosts Maury Povich and Montel Williams; kid star Macaulay Culkin; rocker/bestselling author Bebe Buell; May Pang, John Lennon's old flame; New York Knick Mark Jackson with his wife, singer Desiree Coleman; Broadway greats Bernadette Peters, Polly Bergen, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Joel Grey; ABC soap stars Erika Slezak, David Canary and Catherine Hickland; WNBA stars Rebecca Lobo and Theresa Witherspoon; plus members of the Village People, KC of Sunshine Band fame, model Marcus Schenkenberg, actor Jesse Martin of Law & Order; rapper Run of Run DMC, and fiery soul singer Stephanie Mills.
Whew! And if they weren't enough, how about the original members of Nile's group Chic, including the singer Fonzie Thornton who sang backup for Sister Sledge on their hit single "We Are Family" with Luther Vandross (betcha didn't know that!) as well as Sister Sledge themselves, Kim, Kathie, Joni and Debbie, plus their kids, and Nile's other half, Nancy Hunt, who thought the whole thing up. There was also a clutch of brave volunteer publicity people like Bryan Bantry, Bob Fellner, Lisa Raden, Jackie Bescher and Catherine Saxton who corralled this group and kept them happy in a very small, confined, hot and humid space for hours while Nile assembled the single and Spike Lee, no less, directed the video proceedings for VH-1. Danny Schecter's GlobalVision filmed interviews with all the participants.
For sheer curiosity value, there was also Democratic donor and songwriter Denise Rich, who had her first hit with Sister Sledge's "Frankie." She wore a red and white striped top, a baseball cap emblazoned with "New York, It Ain't Over," the title of a song she wrote 12 years ago, and stuck like glue to Patti LaBelle the entire afternoon.
They arrived without their own publicists, assistants or entourages. Most brought one friend. Diana Ross, who showed up late and made a special entrance after everyone else was in the studio, had a security team. So be it. Did we expect anything less?
Immediately, the immensely talented Nile — whose trademark curly hair was inexplicably drawn into a Shirley Temple 'do — tried to get this unruly group onto the same page. "Don't worry about the words right now. We're just trying to capture the vibe," he said. "We know we have divas in the room, but we're going to pretend it's like a birthday party." Not everyone was listening still, so Rodgers added, for reassurance, "I'm a really good record producer."
But maybe we should have been worried when Miss Ross, looking a little confused, said, "Where are the words? We need the words!"
The first run-through was promising but posed some problems. No Dionne. Diana's hair, teased huge, blocked Phoebe Snow. Diana looked uncomfortable. When the break came she said to Phoebe, "You should be on the first row. You're a big singer. That's where the big singers are." Snow joined the group. It would be Diana's last moment of selflessness.
LaBelle — in that red dress with so much cleavage — slipped away down the hall to her Schecter interview. Suddenly, Ross came barreling out of the studio and down the hall. "Patti, get back in here!" she cried. "I need your vibe." As Ross returned without LaBelle, someone called out, "Where's Patti?"
Diana answered: "She's showing off her boobs on TV!"
Back in the studio, the music started to play. The 74-year-old eternal Eartha Kitt, who wore a bandana, started rocking out to the music. She was joined by a relatively unknown 25-ish African turbaned performer Angelique Kidjo, who is no wallflower. Suddenly, the two women began to breakdance, and Lee's camera followed them. The crowd in the green room, including Miss Kitt's daughter and grandson, gave the pair a rousing ovation.
Miss Ross was not amused. She danced away from the front row until she was standing with Rodgers and Lee, facing the forty or so singers. "I'm going to direct now!" she called out to the surprised gathering. That was the last anyone saw of her. Within a short time, Ross — not happy to be upstaged — was gone.
Her performance was fascinating. Watching her meltdown as the spotlight went to these two other women was a lesson to be remembered. Is she just mean and crazy? Or is she so self-conscious that she's literally scared of other people? One thing's for sure: When Diana moved from the singers' side of the room to the directors' side, her attitude to the singers was that she was the star, and they were the audience.
"We Are Family" will hit stores and VH-1 next week. More tomorrow from backstage, including a surprising story about the Beatles.
Isaac Stern died Saturday at age 81. The legendary violinist will be sorely missed. He discovered a lot of stars including violinists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Stern was a living legend for a reason. He was one of the last great, true artists of not only the 20th century, but of all time. He saved Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball in the late 1950s, and played as the bombs fell in Jerusalem during the Gulf War. Tonight, pour a brandy and put on one of his CDs if you've never heard his work. Another great one, the likes of which we'll never see again, is gone.