The 2012 Soul Train Music Awards was the first time in the 25-year history of the ceremony that it was without its creator, Don Cornelius. For that reason, this year's edition, which was taped at the Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas and aired on BET and Centric on Sunday night, had to be special.
Hosted by Cedric the Entertainer with the incredibly on-point house band held down by musical director Raphael Saadiq, the awards (see the full list of winners here) kicked off with a very Vegas-style medley of classics. Anthony Hamilton performed Bill Withers' "Lovely Day," Leah LaBelle channeled the silky soul of Teena Marie with a cover of "Square Biz" and Fantasia paid r-e-s-p-e-c-t to Aretha Franklin with an inspired performance of "Don't Play That Song For Me." Meanwhile, Charlie Wilson, who didn't need anyone to pay homage to his Gap Band legacy as he is still a relevant artist today, brought it home with "Outstanding."
Cornelius' son, Tony Cornelius, was the next presenter as he reflected on his late father and introduced a loving tribute with "Soul Train" dancers honoring the different eras of dance. Knowing how much influence the series had on the art of dance for more than 30 years, the Fatima Robinson-choreographed performance was fitting and heartfelt. The dancers encompassed the moves upon which we can all reminisce as they grooved to Guy's "Groove Me," got busy to BBD's "Poison" and punctuated their set by paying homage to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
Keyshia Cole showed why she's one of soul music's biggest talents, singing cuts from her new album "Woman to Woman," including "Enough of No Love." X-Factor winner Marcus Canty followed with a serviceable rendition of Luther Vandross' "Never Too Much" before perhaps one of the bigger surprises of the evening.
Tyrese won Song of the Year for his independently released song "Stay" from his No. 1 album "Open Invitation." The track was an overwhelming underdog in a category with other nominees that included John Legend's "Tonight (Best You Ever Had)," Trey Songz' "Heart Attack," Estelle's "Thank You," Usher's "Climax" and Wale's "Lotus Flower Bomb."
Even more surprising was the statement that Tyrese made with his acceptance speech as he took aim at the landscape of today's R&B landscape by calling it "insecure, since everyone is doing house and techno music." But on this night, as Tyrese exclaimed, "Real R&B is winning." He would later perform his award-winning single while fellow heartthrobs Tank and Ginuwine of the group TGT joined him onstage and made the ladies melt in their seats.
Performances by 2 Chainz, Elle Varner, Best Male R&B artist winner Miguel and Ashford & Simpson Songwriter of the Year-winner John Legend and others continued through the night -- with the best moments featuring old-school artists such as Cedric the Entertainer and Eddie Levert's lighthearted duet of "Casanova" and Charlie Wilson singing his hit "My Love Is All I Have."
The latter two performances helped build anticipation for the night's guests of honor, New Edition, who received a Lifetime Achievement award. Emerging in the '80s, the Boston-bred group, made up of Ronnie DeVoe, Bobby Brown, Ricky Bell, Mike Bivins and Ralph Tresvant (and later Johnny Gill), helped redefine the concept of the "boy band." Music producer Jimmy Jam and former NBA great-business mogul Earvin "Magic" Johnson introduced a video montage of all six members recalling the early days, their separate musical outings and being able to still rock stages some 30 years later. Then they hit the stage to a massive ovation. "$500 and a VCR, that was our first deal," Bell said.
Strangely enough, Bobby Brown delivered the most emotional speech as he thanked his fans and group mates for having his back through trying times. But he failed to mention his late ex-wife, Whitney Houston. Nevertheless, the speeches were all touching. Later in the show, the group performed some of their biggest hits including "Candy Girl," "Mr. Telephone Man" and "If It Isn't Love," as fans young and old couldn't help but get out of their seats and sing along.
It was a long night, but the evening closed appropriately when an impromptu appearance by Jamie Foxx, along with a virtual Don Cornelius, presented the final act of the evening -- the one and only Stevie Wonder. The legendary singer and surprise guest explained how "Soul Train" was a testing ground for "Superstition" and thanked Cornelius, the program and the fans for supporting him throughout his career. It was a magical performance as Wonder belted out "Superstition" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours." During a revamped version of the latter, a photo montage of recently re-elected President Obama flashed on an elevated screen. Wonder inserted into the lyrics: "We got Barack for four more years."
Although Cornelius couldn't be there to witness the show, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that he'd appreciate how the awards ceremony continues to feature some of the best in soul music.