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What started simply, and privately, as a fun way to connect while celebrating a 17-year-old’s birthday five weeks ago has grown into a virtual fundraising phenomenon that crossed the $1 million mark Friday night during a concert event that featured the mayor of Atlanta, R&B superstars and Hollywood power players teaming up to raise money to support COVID-19 relief efforts.
Anchored, promoted and hosted by WME partner Richard Weitz with daughter Demi from their Beverly Hills home, the pandemic concert series shifted focus to spotlight the work of United Way Worldwide in helping residents in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York City, New Orleans and Philadelphia (Richard’s hometown).
Well over $250,000 was raised during the four-plus-hour event, funds that will be distributed to provide food assistance, education resources for kids, preventive health care, and financial support for families in need. Tonight’s showing followed a series of events over the past four weeks that featured more than 100 top artists showing off their talents to the tune of $850,000 for previous beneficiaries the Saban Community Clinic, Cedars-Sinai Hospital, United Way L.A. and New York City Health + Hospitals.
Friday’s event started at 6 p.m. with remarks from Richard and Demi, both wearing United Way T-shirts with the slogan “Live United,” as they provided an update on the progress thus far. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt my heart beating so fast,” Demi said. “I want to start by saying thank you everyone. It’s been overwhelming. I’m so grateful and so happy for each and every one [who has donated]. I didn’t even think we’d get to $10,000.”
They welcomed Suzanne McCormick, the U.S. president of United Way Worldwide, who called Demi her idol before saying this time of crisis “is a time more than ever we have to be united.” She explained how her organization has maintained focus on the holistic approach of helping communities in need, a method that sees them respond to not just one problem, but a broad spectrum of issues that require solutions now. “We were built for this time.”
The Mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, then appeared, the second mayor after L.A.’s own Eric Garcetti. She thanked the Weitz family and then offered an update about efforts on the ground in Georgia. She addressed the unique situation her city is in as home to a large population of black residents. The novel coronavirus has been proved to affect and kill black Americans at a disproportionately higher rate than other races and because of that, the state has been a swarm of controversy this week as Gov. Brian Kemp lifted stay-at-home orders, a decision that allows businesses to reopen.
Bottoms has spoken out against the state opening back up, cautioning that it’s too early, specifically for those who work in restaurants, gyms, nail and hair salons to serve as “guinea pigs” to see how transmittable COVID-19 will be as life returns to normal. She said her mother owned a hair salon for 25 years, a place she worked as a teenager.
“I was in that hair salon for hours and hours on end. It is the place where I met the most incredible people who changed my life. They encouraged me and inspired me…and they are on the front end of this pandemic,” she explained. “To think that these are the people who are being sent back out first, in so many ways, as guinea pigs to see if it’s OK for rest of us to venture back out — they are the last ones who need to go back out.”
With barbershops and hair salons on every corner, she said that if the virus is transmitted through patrons, “this could be catastrophic.” She directed the 500+ viewers watching at that time — a group that included Clive Davis, David Mandel, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Dana and Matt Walden, Amy Adams, Kevin Reilly, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, Diane Warren, Blair Underwood, Kandi Burruss, Bernie Cahill, Rodney Jerkins, Eric Feig, Fred Savage, Alex Berliner, Melvin Mar, 3 Arts Entertainment’s Stacey Lubliner and husband David Lubliner, Ari Greenburg, Marc Geiger, Ken Levitan, Kirk Sommer and others — to donate to what she called the city’s “Strength and Beauty Fund,” an initiative she personally supported through her campaign account.
Richard then “called an audible” and welcomed couple Antony Ressler and Jami Gertz, owners of the Atlanta Hawks, who appeared with a special announcement and a personal reveal. Ressler acknowledged how tough the crisis has been, particularly for him losing a brother in this process due to COVID-19. “He fought a good fight and was caught up in something horrible. Please understand it’s much more important that we try to do what we think is right. We’re trying to play our part.”
In doing so, the couple offered up a donation of their own. “Richard and Demi are huge forces of nature and we are huge fans of them both. We’re huge fans of Mayor Bottoms and, frankly, we’re huge fans of the United Way in Atlanta, so we absolutely wanted to give $100,000 to this endeavor. We couldn’t be more proud to be part of it. What the Mayor has been trying to do, which is reopen an economy intelligently and thoughtfully, that’s something that everyone has to support irrespective of your political perspectives. I’m thrilled to take a small part of that and I know my wife feels that.”
Their donation pushed the tally over the $1 million mark, and Richard and Demi threw up their hands in celebration while unmuting the Zoom party to allow everyone to celebrate as a chorus. The chat box lit up with congratulations: Amy Adams posted, “Sooooo amazing,” while producer Zack Estrin wrote, “Amazing, amazing, amazing.”
Been covering this Zoom concert series for 5 weeks now and caught the moment when this happened…(so did Amy Adams, Dodgers’ Dave Roberts, Clive Davis, Diane Warren, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms…) pic.twitter.com/gg8MrZzEdu
— Chris Gardner (@chrissgardner) May 2, 2020
Richard and Demi’s pandemic parties started in mid-March when Richard tested out a virtual birthday party for Demi when most of the world had just started isolating under safe-at-home mandates. He booked his favorite Windy City piano man, Dario Giraldo of Chicago’s Redhead Piano Bar, to entertain an intimate group but after Demi and friends got restless from the nostalgic jams, Weitz expanded the invite list to friends and Hollywood colleagues. It was an instant hit and since then, he’s hosted under a dozen events with big-name musical acts logging in to perform their hits while a select roster of invitees look on from their respective homes.
“I wanted people to have a good time,” Weitz previously told THR of why he started the gatherings. “It’s like comfort food — songs and artists that people have literally grown up with that make everyone happy and bring joy in this difficult time.”
To date the series has hosted John Mayer, Liam Payne, Marcus Mumford, James Bay, Charlie Puth, Hozier, Josh Groban, Billy Ray Cyrus, Rick Astley, Boy George, Bangles star Susanna Hoffs, John Hiatt, The War and Treaty, Thomas Rhett, Florida Georgia Line, Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Gibson, Madison Love, Rick Springfield, Lauren Daigle, Randy Newman, Alan Menken, Weird Al Yankovic, Jeffrey Osborne and dozens of others.
The money kept pouring in past a million Friday night. Adam Sansiveri, managing director of Alliance Bernstein Private Wealth Management, appeared to announce that his firm would offer $100,000 to the United Way in Nashville, a move that came after Richard announced that next Friday night’s concert would be a country-themed benefit for that city’s Vanderbilt Hospital featuring top Nashville artists.
Then came the music.
Soul legend Jeffrey Osborne kicked off the night, and his presence at tonight’s event carried significant meaning for Osborne, he said, as he was still grieving the loss of both his manager and another friend, who died at Vanderbilt Hospital. “It’s hitting home for me now, and I really love that you’re doing something.”
He powered through the performance and bookended the entire show showcasing his hits like “You Should Be Mine (the Woo Woo Song),” “On the Wings of Love” and the LTD classic “Back in Love Again.”
Clive Davis moved to speak early on, saying how he’d been watching the concert series since the beginning. Like such industry titans as Bob Iger, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dana Walden and Jennifer Salke, Davis has been a constant face on the Zoom screen while watching from Palm Springs where he’s been waiting out the pandemic. “To see you reach these figures is [astonishing],” said Davis. He then singled out artists he’s helped deliver like Barry Gibb, Barry Manilow and Johnny Mathis, the latter two who appeared during a special April 25 edition of the series which featured singers, legends and Broadway stars raising money for New York City Health + Hospitals.
Performers last weekend included Josh Groban (a cover of “Empire State of Mind”), Josh Gad and Nikki M. James (Book of Mormon’s “Baptize Me”), Marcus Mumford (“You’ll Never Walk Alone” with brief interview by Liverpool Football Club manager Tom Werner), Barry Manilow (“When the Good Times Come Again” and a medley of five of his greatest hits including “Copacabana,” “Can’t Smile Without You” and “I Write the Songs”), Teddy Swims, Jessie Mueller (“Soft Place to Land”), Adrienne Warren (“We Don’t Need Another Hero” with lyrics changed to “We Need More Heroes”), Ramin Karimloo (“Old Man River” and “Music of the Night”), Samantha Barks (“On My Own”), Lauren Patten (Jagged Little Pill), couple Andy Karl and Orfeh, Brenock O’Connor (Sing Street), Ephraim Sykes (Ain’t Too Proud), Erika Henningsen and Kyle Selig (Mean Girls) and the “Singing Surgeon” Dr. Elvis Francois.
Hamilton was well represented by Leslie Odom with “Wait for It” and by Christopher Jackson with “One Last Time (44 Remix)” in a performance that marked the first time he’d ever revisited the track after recording it for the Ham4Ham special release. Broadway star Keala Settle also delivered the chills when she dedicated “I’m Gone” from Hands on a Hard Body to Nick Cordero, who is currently battling COVID-19 while in an induced coma at Cedars-Sinai.
Back to Friday night. Davis also turned his attention to Bottoms and Atlanta when he said that he’s spent considerable time there with his artists like Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Dionne Warwick or working with producers like Dallas Austin, L.A. Reid and Babyface. “To see your heroic stand, what you’re doing,” he said to the mayor, “I want you to know we’re extremely proud of you.”
More money rolled in after that from Chris Burch who challenged others to match his $15,000 donation in honor of his hometown of Philadelphia, a call that was quickly picked up by Yvette Bowser, who received cheers for returning to the fold after plunking down $100,000 on a recent weekend. “My whole family is in Philly,” she said, and it’s worth noting that the Phillies mascot, the newly updated Phillie Phanatic, also made a cameo. “I’m a Philly Dodgers fan.”
Davis then introduced Fantasia, saying that she follows in the “great tradition of Aretha and Whitney and I’m so grateful you joined us here tonight with your beautiful, beautiful voice.”
It’s hard to describe what Fantasia did tonight…you have to watch. pic.twitter.com/IurBbiBPEc
— Chris Gardner (@chrissgardner) May 2, 2020
Other highlights included Al B. Sure, Sheila E.’s medley of the Prince-penned “Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre,” Amos Lee’s soulful selection of songs on the piano, guitar and a cappella, Jac Ross (his single “Save” and Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You”), Michael Franti (live from Bali with his wife and son), another showing from the “Singing Surgeon” and watching Sirius XM host and producer Mike Muse dancing up a storm and injecting positive reactions all night into the chat box. The Waldens even got to address Johnny Gill directly and request that he sing “My, My, My,” which he did along with several others of his top hits, including New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain” and a cappella bits from “Rub You the Right Way” and “Fairweather Friend.”
“This is like my personal mix tape,” Richard said, “I love this night.”
And even before it was over, another email went out to his private list announcing the big news — “We couldn’t have done it without your incredible support and generous donations” — with another reveal that Saturday’s show would be in partnership with Goldman Sachs to raise funds for Team Rubicon.
The night stretched past 10 p.m. and Richard welcomed back Osborne to close the show with a performer’s choice, but not before Bottoms jumped back on. Despite it being well past midnight in her time zone, she was joined by her 12-year-old son, Langston, who had his own announcement: He would be donating $100 from his allowance because he was so inspired by the soulful evening.
“We’ve had an amazing night,” said the mayor. Osborne took the mic and played the LTD hit “Back in Love Again” and “Love Ballad” before closing the night with “What a Wonderful World” as many of the Zoom groupies still watching got out of their seats to dance to the beat in front of their computers to show that they did, too.
A look at tonight’s Zoom concert series with Atlanta’s Keisha Bottoms, Jimmy Jam, Yvette Bowser, Johnny Gill, Jeffrey Osborne, hundreds of others raising money for United Way. pic.twitter.com/vcDqzb6hwP
— Chris Gardner (@chrissgardner) May 2, 2020
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