Stars Turn Out for Katrina Telethons

Kanye West sticks to performing, Bill Clinton speaks up and even Jon Stewart gets serious

The weekend brought three major telethons for victims of Hurricane Katrina, with a dream cast asking those watching to pledge money for the relief efforts.

Friday night, the six major networks broadcast Shelter From the Storm, during which – ironically, unless it was an intentional goof – Kanye West’s microphone didn’t work at first. (At an earlier telethon, the rapper heavily criticized President Bush, who he said “doesn’t care about black people.”)

But West still got to perform – he sang his hit, “Jesus Walks” – as did U2, Neil Young, Mary J. Blige, Garth Brooks, Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks, the Foo Fighters, Alicia Keys, Randy Newman, Paul Simon and Rod Stewart.

Only comedian (and this year’s Oscar host) Chris Rock rocked the boat, as it were. “George Bush hates midgets,” he blurted out during Shelter From the Storm. When he got to the BET telethon, he said: “Don’t forget: George Bush hates albinos.”

Meanwhile, Jack Nicholson sang “Maria,” from West Side Story, because a woman calling in to donate money had requested it. “You see, tonight I’m ready for everything,” the actor said.

Ellen DeGeneres opened the show, saying of her native city: “Tonight let’s show people from New Orleans that they have friends all over the world, friends who care, who understand are here to give them shelter from the storm.” Julia Roberts closed the program, and in between, Jack Black, Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, Morgan Freeman and Ray Romano made appeals on behalf of the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

The program was slightly more political on SOS Saving OurSelves: The BET Relief Telethon, also on Friday. Former President Bill Clinton called in to express support and was asked by cohost Steve Harvey what his administration would have done differently if it had been handling the disaster. Clinton refrained from criticizing Bush, but talked about the importance he placed on the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We always thought faster was better than slower,” Clinton said.

The BET benefit, cohosted by Harvey and Queen Latifah, interspersed musical performances with heartbreaking film clips of Gulf Coast residents asking for help to locate missing relatives and friends. Alicia Keys sang her hit “If I Ain’t Got You,” and Patti LaBelle sang the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You.” And although they showed up 15 minutes late, Jay-Z and Diddy made quite an entrance: presenting a $1 million check to the Red Cross from the New York hip-hop community.

“There’s been a lot of telethons,” Diddy said, “but this is our telethon. These are our people.”

On Saturday’s ReAct Now: Music & Relief telethon on MTV and its sister networks VH1 and CMT, satirist Jon Stewart didn’t crack a single joke, instead making the point: “The help that we have seen is way more powerful than this hurricane was.”

Music was provided by such acts as Green Day, the Rolling Stones, Coldplay, Elton John, the Foo Fighters, Fiona Apple, John Mellencamp, Kelly Clarkson and Pearl Jam, among others, with tributes to New Orleans peppering the program.

Sheryl Crow, who recorded her eponymous 1996 CD in the Big Easy and says she’s had a love affair with the city ever since, said: “There is an undeniable energy in New Orleans. “The people there are extremely soulful … and there is a real spiritual vibe about it,” Maroon 5’s Adam Levine said, “The last time we were in New Orleans was one of my fondest memories of touring. … So it was particularly upsetting to watch it crumble.”

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