With the flood waters of Katrina yet to recede, Randy Newman sang about a long-ago hurricane in “Louisiana 1927” to open a benefit program spread across dozens of television networks Friday.
Dr. John ended a show suffused with the spirit of a musical city singing a song that’s only a wish now: “Walkin’ to New Orleans.”
The hour-long appeal was an echo of a somber event held four years ago to benefit victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, with the same producer. This time, the telethon had more determination than shock and featured native jazz, gospel and swamp-rock sounds.
“Tonight let’s show people on the Gulf Coast that they have friends all over the world, friends who care, who understand and are there to give them shelter from the storm,” said comic Ellen DeGeneres, who was raised in New Orleans.
ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB — the six biggest broadcast networks — aired it along with several cable networks. Viewers in nearly 100 countries were able to tune in.
Contributions were being solicited for the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army.
It’s the most high-profile of several such televised benefits. BET was also appealing for help Friday for victims of a tragedy that struck the black community hard, and MTV planned its own concert for Saturday.
Former President Bill Clinton called in to the BET telethon to express support and was asked by co-host Steve Harvey what his administration would have done differently if it were in power during the hurricane. Clinton refrained from criticizing Bush, but talked about the importance he placed on the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We always thought faster was better than slower,” Clinton said.
NBC stations televised an appeal last week, marked by rapper Kanye West’s off-script comment that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
The performers largely stuck to scripts Friday, including West, who sang “Jesus Walks” with a gospel choir. West’s microphone wasn’t working during the first few lines of his song, though, in what appeared to be a technical glitch.
Only an impish Chris Rock couldn’t resist scaring producers, looking into the camera and saying, “George Bush hates midgets.”
“We’ve all heard the question,” Rock said. “Why didn’t these people just leave when they had the chance? But now we realize that not everybody can just jump into their SUVs and drive to a nice hotel. These people depend on public transportation and these people can’t afford a nice hotel, because some of them work there. Now it’s your chance to help them.”
Rock singer John Fogerty, who sang passionately about the Mississippi delta a generation ago, wasn’t there but his music was: the Foo Fighters sang “Born on the Bayou” and Garth Brooks did “Who’ll Stop the Rain.”
Paul Simon, who was in Louisiana to help relief efforts this week, sang “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” with an extended coda from a jazz band.
Mariah Carey and Neil Young were also backed by gospel singers and Alicia Keys was joined by several gospel stars. U2 needed only one powerful voice, singer Mary J. Blige’s, to enliven the rock band’s anthem “One.”
The BET benefit was hipper and more heart-breaking. It interspersed musical performances with film clips of Gulf Coast residents asking for help to locate missing relatives and friends.
Keys sang her hit “If I Ain’t Got You,” and Patti LaBelle sang the Pretenders song “I’ll Stand By You.”
It was also a little looser: Harvey introduced rappers Jay-Z and Diddy, only to be told they hadn’t arrived yet. Fifteen minutes later they did and made it worthwhile, presenting a $1 million check to the Red Cross from the New York hip-hop community.
“There’s been a lot of telethons,” Diddy said, “but this is our telethon. These are our people.”