Pearl Cleage

Pearl Makes A List: Five Performers Who Were Even Better Than the Record

Over the course of my concert going lifetime, I have been fortunate to see many live shows by some absolutely amazing performers and I do confess to having had a difficult time narrowing it down to the five best. I was at a loss as to how to proceed, when I suddenly remembered the highest compliment we could pay an artist, back when we were still so young that our parents had to drop us off at the concert and pick us up afterward. “Just like the record,” we’d say. “They sounded just like the record.” In those days, that usually meant the precious 45s we bought with our very own money and later the albums we saved up for and then played over and over until we knew every word on both sides. By that time, we also understood that while there was a certain satisfaction to be had in an artist who sounded “just like the record,” there was also great pleasure in experiencing a song differently because it was live. Which brings us to this week’s list:

Five Performers Who Were Even Better Than the Record

1. The Temptations at Howard University. My freshman year at Howard University, we had the great good fortune to have The Temptations live at Cramton Auditorium for homecoming. On the day of the concert, my roommate and I walked over to Cramton amidst a throng of other students headed the same way. Outside the auditorium’s big glass doors, a large group had begun to form, jockeying for positions up front. We agreed that if we got separated, whoever got in first would grab seats for both of us. When I looked around a few minutes later, I could see my tall roommate up toward the front of the crowd. Good, I thought. She’ll score us some seats up close. That’s when I heard a loud cracking sound and the two middle glass doors cracked under the weight of so many anxious bodies, sending people tumbling over each other onto the floor of the lobby. It was some kind of safety glass, so it didn’t shatter, and my roommate was far enough from the front that she never even got stepped on, but she was shaken up. I sat beside her on a bench in the lobby with a couple of other girls who were crying, but also seemed unhurt while the staff put plywood over the broken doors and got things organized so the show could go on. But then my roommate said, “I just don’t think I can sit through the show after all that. Will you go back to the dorm with me?” The fact that I’m writing about this performance will tell you everything you need to know about my answer.

2. The Cockroaches at The Fox. There was so much secrecy about this Rolling Stones concert although I can’t remember exactly why anymore. I think they were just tired of doing giant arenas and decided to do some smaller venues, like the Fabulous Fox. As the date approached, counterfeit tickets began to appear on the streets of Atlanta, but the real tickets didn’t even say “the Rolling Stones.” They said, “The Cockroaches Live at the Fox Theatre.” I ended up seated between the Bond brothers, Julian and James who shared my fervent hope that the Cockroaches would blow the roof off the newly restored auditorium. And they did.

3. Bruce Springsteen at The Omni. Like many people, I discovered Bruce Springsteen with the “Born to Run” album. The iconic black and white photograph of Bruce leaning on sax genius Clarence Clemmons was my first look at them both and I hurried out immediately to find the record, probably before I even heard the music. But it was the music that captured my imagination and made me fall in love with the mythical place that is known as New Jersey. I saw Bruce and the E Street Band three times, and they were always great, but my first time seeing them at the Omni was the best. They played for three hours plus and just when we thought we couldn’t scream any louder, they came back for what was for years their signature encore, Rosalita.

4. Meat Loaf at Symphony Hall. Symphony Hall is not usually a place that we associate with performers like Meat Loaf circa 1977. Loud and raucous and sweaty with a ruffled tuxedo shirt, long blond hair and a great big booming voice, he was on the road promoting a new album, “Bat Out of Hell,” his classic collaboration with songwriter Jim Steinman and producer Todd Rundgren. At the time, I was the only Meat Loaf fan I knew, so I pulled on my camouflage pants and my L.A. boots and went by myself. The words “high energy” are overused, but this show was the very definition of those words. Meat Loaf was in constant motion and the band stayed right with him. But with all his showmanship, including a big silk handkerchief worthy of Luciano Pavarotti or Louis Armstrong, he never dropped a lyric, even in the dimness of the dashboard light.

5. Diana Ross in Rotterdam. It had been probably five or six years since I had gotten on an airplane when Essence magazine asked me to fly to Amsterdam to interview Diana Ross as she kicked off an international tour in support of her new solo album, “Silk Electric.” There is no way a little girl from the West Side of Detroit can turn down an assignment like that without losing her Motown credentials, so I talked Zeke into going with me and we hopped a KLM flight that deposited us safely in the Netherlands just in time for me to interview Miss Ross, who was beautiful and charming and as fabulous as I hoped she’d be. The next evening, we boarded a train for Rotterdam, had a lovely pre-concert dinner at a restaurant where nobody spoke English but us and it didn’t even matter. Our seats were third row center and when she caught sight of us from the stage, Miss Ross made a motion as if to say “is that your man?” I nodded and she beamed her approval. Zeke just beamed. Later when she launched into her hit and cooed in our direction that she wanted muscles, my normally reserved True Love jumped to his feet and flexed for all he was worth.


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