Three legendary Philadelphia musicians were honored before hundreds of people Tuesday night at a gala at the Kimmel Center for the 27th annual Marian Anderson Award.
Legendary songwriting and producer duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the pioneers of the Philadelphia Sound, and R&B icon and now culinary queen Patti LaBelle shared the award – the first time the honor went to more than one person.
The award named for the celebrated contralto and civil rights heroine from South Philadelphia celebrates social consciousness.
Gamble’s Universal Cos. has built low- and middle-income housing in South Philadelphia not far from where he grew up, at 15th and Christian Streets. LaBelle has been a supporter of the United Negro College Fund and a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association.
The event was star-studded, with a lineup featuring Grammy-nominated R&B singers Ledisi and Kathy Sledge as well as the groups the Soul Survivors and the Three Degrees, which both worked with Gamble and Huff.
The show opened with a vibrant performance by the Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble.
Aliyah Khaylyn, a 10th grader, came out all in white to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but first she let the crowd know, “This is for you, Patti.”
She brought members of the audience to their feet with a cheering LaBelle in the corner, setting the tone for an evening filled with soulful performances, gratitude, and homage.
The award celebrates artists “who have used their talents for personal artistic expression and whose bodies of work have contributed to society in a singular manner.”
The list of past winners includes Oprah Winfrey, Jon Bon Jovi, and last year’s honoree, Wynton Marsalis. But with the exception of Bill Cosby, who won in 2010, there has not been any Philadelphian on the list, and no local musical talent whatsoever – until Tuesday night.
Anderson was denied the right to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington in 1939 because of her race. But with the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, she performed a free concert for 75,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.