Every time I checked Twitter’s list of trending topics in Los Angeles on Sunday night an evening, let’s remember, when the Rams were opening Inglewood’s ballyhooed SoFi Stadium Verzuz was ahead of the NFL.
Verzuz, if you’re not aware, is the hit online series that pits musicians against each other in track-for-track battles on Instagram Live. The all-powerful NFL you know.
Yet it made sense that, on social media at least, the former came out on top: With Gladys Knight squaring off against Patti LaBelle two icons of soul music with the songs and stories to show for their combined 150-ish years Verzuz simply offered the better competition on Sunday.
As they say on the internet, I’m telling my kids this was America’s game.
What made the two-hour production such a delight beyond a surprise appearance by Dionne Warwick, about which more later was the clear love between the lifelong peers-slash-rivals, who’d sparred playfully ahead of time in a pair of promo videos in which each threatened the other with her cooking. (Online records put each singer’s age at 76, though Knight said during the show that she was 77.)
Widely referred to as Auntie-chella, the battle livestreamed from Philadelphia’s Fillmore and viewed by more than half a million people on Instagram celebrated wisdom and experience in an era when both can seem in short supply. Here are highlights from the show:
• Seated onstage in an empty yet dramatically lit auditorium, the women began Verzuz by catching up as any old pals would. They compared notes on their grandbabies. They talked about gaining weight during quarantine. And they recounted learning to cook in dressing rooms while on the road. “Ain’t nothing wrong with a hot plate, is it?” Knight asked.
• Before the music, the singers also took a moment to touch on politics, with LaBelle urging folks to vote in November, and Knight wondering about the true meaning of President Trump’s desire to make America great again: “Are you saying we should go back to slavery?”
• Different artists approach Verzuz differently, with some merely bobbing their heads to their records, and others offering full performances. Knight obviously came prepared for the latter, so when LaBelle opened Round 1 by ad-libbing quietly to “All Right Now,” Knight gently urged her friend to step it up a notch (“You better sing”) before she tore into “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” as though the empty theater were filled with people.
• “Celine did this after I did,” LaBelle said to introduce “If You Asked Me To,” the late-’80s power ballad that Celine Dion later made into a pop hit. “I did it first.” After the song, LaBelle pointed out that she’d filmed its music video on the same day as her sister Jackie’s funeral. “When you see my tears in the video, they’re real,” she said.
• LaBelle described “Stir It Up,” one of her two hits (along with “New Attitude”) from the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack, as “kind of corny but I love it.” Here, Knight matched the bouncy, synthed-up number with “Every Beat of My Heart,” from way back in her earliest days with the Pips, and it was beautiful to see how much the half-century-old tune still means to her. “I had to borrow one of your high notes, Patti,” she told LaBelle.
• Though Knight sounded great in “Licence to Kill,” the theme song from the 1989 James Bond film of the same name, Knight offered a warning to her fans: “Don’t y’all be out there killing nobody,” she said. “I ain’t giving you a license to kill.”
• In Round 6, LaBelle sang “My Love, Sweet Love,” from the “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack, then shouted out the soundtrack’s mastermind (and Verzuz alum), Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds: “Everything he writes turns my heart to happy.”
• LaBelle evidently experienced some trouble with her prompter during “Love, Need and Want You,” which led to some stern words for the show’s crew. “Put my lyrics up on the next one or you gonna get cut,” she said as she smoothed her hair. “I’m only joking.”
• Part of Verzuz’s appeal is clocking the verified names that come through the comments section on Instagram, and this time we were treated to the sight of the competitors themselves watching who was watching, including Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. “We also got a special hello from the CEO of Apple,” LaBelle said, before Knight identified Tim Cook as “Tim Cuckoo” and said she hoped he was enjoying the show “with a plate of collard greens.”
• At the climax of “Over the Rainbow,” LaBelle kicked off her shoes and stood to dance, though one of her heels flipped back and smacked her in the knee.
• Things started to go off the rails a bit in Round 12, when LaBelle inexplicably broke from the song-by-song format and started jamming more than one tune into each of her turns, beginning with a medley of “New Attitude” and “On My Own,” both of which certainly deserved their own showcase.