story and photos by Kim Souza
More than 1,300 people donned in formal and elegant attire streamed into the John Q. Hammons Center in Northwest Arkansas on Saturday for the 45th NAACP Image Awards Viewing Event.
The new local chapter of the NAACP worked with Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble and One Source to bring the Blue Carpet event to Rogers in honor of the 45th NAACP Image Awards broadcast live in California.
Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Tennessee Titan’s George Wilson and actor Laz Alonso graced the blue carpet Saturday afternoon fielding questions from a small local media team and TV One, who was shooting for a segment that was piped into the live broadcast out in Los Angeles.
Knight said this was her first trip to Northwest Arkansas, and she was struck by the southern hospitality experienced in this short visit.
“I am delighted to be here. … I came in and met with Wal-Mart and wanted to talk with them about serving in some of the great causes they represent. I think it’s important to give back,” Knight said.
Instead of purchasing a new dress for the Blue Carpet event, Knight said she was donating the money she would have likely spent ($1,000).
“You know those of us who go to lots of the events can spend serious money on a gown whether it’s for the Red Carpet or the Blue Carpet. I thought I would try start a campaign to encourage others to donate as well,” Knight said.
‘CHICKEN AND WAFFLES’
While this was her first trip to the area, Knight said she will definitely be back.
“Maybe next time I will cook for you all, that’s my other thing, my son Shanga (Hankerson) and I operate two restaurants in Georgia,” Knight said.
When asked about her specialty dish, Knight replied, “Chicken and Waffles.”
Knight was a guest at Wal-Mart’s Saturday Morning Meeting and those who attended ate chicken and waffles, according to Wal-Mart spokeswoman Kayla Whaling.
Knight also said preserving Black heritage is extremely to her, which is why she recently purchased an historic school in Canton, N.C. She said it was the last standing African American school in that area before forced integration.
“It was up for auction and I was looking for a birthday gift for my husband, we thought it was a good way for us help preserve our heritage. I have always wanted a school and this will give us the opportunity to educate, especially young women,” Knight said.
FOOTBALL STAR RETURN
Wilson told the media he enjoyed coming back to Arkansas, having played football for the Razorbacks between 2000 and 2004.
“I continue to be amazed with how much this region has grown since then. I loved the time I spent here,” Wilson said.
He said he was proud to support events like the NAACP Image Awards because of the important work that is being done to engage diversity and preserve Black heritage.
Ronetta J Francis, vice president of employment compliance for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., opened the event with a welcome message for the first NWA branch of the NAACP. She called for a showing of charter membership hands in the house, and then said, “Me too.”
Wal-Mart also shot two commercials during the event featuring the audience in support of diversity. Those commercials will be aired on TV One and other sites in support of the NAACP and diversity.
John Colbert, director of the new chapter of NAACP for Northwest Arkansas said the organization has 130 charter members.
“It’s a big deal. The NAACP Image Awards have been an important part of the organization’s efforts to recognize those entertainers who promote social justice through creative endeavors dating back to 1909. To have a local satellite viewing production with its own live headline entertainment is very exciting for us as brand new chapter. We couldn’t have better partners,” Colbert said.
A silent auction at the event helped to raise more than $3,000 for the local NAACP chapter. He said there is still lots of work to do in Northwest Arkansas to further education, health care access and economic disparity issues.
Patti LaBelle, at 69 years young, brought the house down with her signature rendition of “Lady Marmalade” as the crowd shouted “ hey sister, go sister, soul sister, go sister.”
LaBelle told the crowd Christina Aguilera re-recorded the song, but “this soul sister has been doing it for decades.” She recruited the help of two men in the audience, a marketing executive at Wal-Mart and a retired dance teacher who as a French student 30 years ago belted out the tricky “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir, Voulez-vous coucher avec moi” lyrics like nobody’s business.
On a serious note, LaBelle said she and Knight were longtime friends, just four days apart in age. LaBelle then hushed the crowd with a soulful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and in a surprising move she flung two red stilettos into the audience and finished the song the bare feet.
“I love Wal-Mart and thank you Sam’s Club,” LaBelle said as she sang the praises of those who find ways to make a true difference in the lives of many.
In a tearful dedication to her sisters who each died of breast cancer and her deceased parents, LaBelle belted out “The Lord’s Prayer” in song.
“I hope they are smiling at their sister and the daughter,” LaBelle shared their her tears.
Later in the evening, Knight took the stage and closed the place down with a blend of classic and new material which is on her new album that will sold exclusively at Wal-Mart. Knight paid homage to those artists that mentored her, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald.
“Ms. Ella Fitzgerald was like my god mom, she used to come and see me perform and I couldn’t believe it. It don’t get any better than that,” Knight said, who then sang “The Man I Love,” a Fitzgerald song she finds particularly special.
Knight also gave the crowd what they chanted for “Love Overboard” and then closed out the mini concert with her signature “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
“Now you all in the audience have be my Pips,” Knight said as the song began.