Twenty-seven years ago, at the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony, Patti LaBelle’s cue cards-handler failed her during her iconic-for-all-the-wrong-reasons rendition of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” — causing her to exasperatedly cry out, “It’s the wrong words on the cue cards; I don’t know the song!” And the rest was television and meme history.
This Sunday, at the 2023 BET Awards, LaBelle must have been feeling some sense of déjà vu, when a similar lyrics-flubbing disaster occurred during her much-anticipated tribute to Tina Turner, who died on May 24. But, just like LaBelle did during that 1996 Christmas crisis, the powerhouse diva powered through.
LaBelle, wearing a “Proud Mary”-esque fringed mini-dress, started strong with her performance of Turner’s 1989 anthem “The Best”… but it wasn’t long before she got off track and sounded out of sync with her background singers. (Well, at least she had background singers this time, which famously wasn’t the case during the above-mentioned Christmas debacle.) “Oh, Lord,” LaBelle blurted, acknowledging the snafu.
“Whatever, I can’t see the words, I don’t know,” LaBelle then melodically ad-libbed, belting her own made-up lyrics just as she had back in ’96. “I’m trying, y’all,” the 79-year-old diva told the amused audience, who just cheered her on encouragingly. As one viewer tweeted, “Only Patti LaBelle can sound that good and not only not the words but sing that she doesn’t know the words.”
LaBelle eventually regained her footing, and she finished with a flourish. A BET spokesperson later told The Hollywood Reporter that “due to the crowd’s enthusiasm, the teleprompter was obstructed, obscuring Ms. LaBelle’s view of the lyrics.” At least one video tweeted by an audience member, seen below, seems to prove that the crowd was indeed blocking the singer’s view.
While among the night’s big winners were younger artists like SZA, Latto, and Coco Jones, Patti LaBelle was hardly the ceremony’s only old-school performer. Other highlights of the BET Awards, which took place Sunday, June 25 at Los Angeles’s Microsoft Theater, included a celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop with 69 Boyz, Chief Keef, DJ Unk, Fast Life Yungstaz, Kid ‘n Play, Master P, Soulja Boy, Warren G, and Ying Yang Twins; the Sugarhill Gang, MC Lyte, D-Nice, and Big Daddy Kane doing “Rapper’s Delight” and “Cha Cha Cha”; E-40, Tyga, and Yo-Yo doing “Tell Me When to Go” and “Rack City”; a hits medley by Fat Joe, Remy Ma, Ja Rule, and Fabolous; and a star-studded tribute to Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Busta Rhymes.
For a full list of 2023 BET Awards winners, click here.
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