TVD Live: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song: Emilio and Gloria Estefan, DAR Constitution Hall, 3/13

PHOTO: ALBERTO TOLOT | It was the 10th Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, but winners Emilio and Gloria Estefan represent two firsts—the first married couple to be so honored, and the first of Latin heritage.

The award comes with a presentation with a big Congressional delegation in Washington and an all-star concert at the DAR Constitution Hall saluting the music, taped for public television. The last time the prize was given, in 2017, Tony Bennett mostly sat back and basked in it before coming out and slaying everybody with a few songs at the end.

But for the 2019 event last Wednesday, the couple seemed among the most hardworking on stage. In front of a big band directed by Emmy-winner Gregg Field, the two both helped open the show with “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” and closed it with a big “Samba/Conga” finale.

In addition, Gloria came out to join some of the guests in song—with José Feliciano on one song; with violinist Sarah Chang on another; and joining her daughter Emily Estefan on a duet of a Gershwin song, “Embraceable You.” Where usually performers look up to the adjoining box to pay respects to the honoree, sitting next to the Librarian of Congress presiding, Carla Hayden, their seats were empty half the night.

That work ethic is part of the reason the Estefans were honored, of course. More than once was the story told of the Cuban natives raised with nothing, who built a Miami Sound Machine empire based on their own talents and gumption, selling millions of albums worldwide before cautious (or possibly racist) recording industry in their adopted country would give them a try.

When they hit big here in the mid-1980s and early ’90s, they created a string of hit singles— though just a few of them tended to be repeated in the special and in the Broadway musical adaptation of their lives, On Your Feet!, the cast of which was also on hand.

The Estefans are still working that catalogue, promoting an upcoming album of the same favorites, this time with a Brazilian beat. That beat was generated in the show by a recording of the kind of Bahian percussion bands that dominate the streets (but the production missed an opportunity by not hiring the local all-female Afro-Brazilian marching band Batalá).

The big stars for the event, who seem to show up for every TV music salute, were Cyndi Lauper and Patti LaBelle, and while both are still in good voice, neither seemed particularly familiar with the song they were assigned, “Reach,” the theme from the ’96 Atlanta Olympics.

For LaBelle’s other song, a full choice performance of “Coming Out of the Dark,” she didn’t know quite where to come in and had to start the whole song over again, saying “That’s show biz, guys!” (Clearly, another day of rehearsals wouldn’t have hurt).

It was sweet to hear Rita Moreno do a Latin-tinged version of “Somewhere” from West Side Story that she did on a 2015 album produced by Emilio Estefan, Uno Vez Más. At 86, of course it was a little shaky (her Netflix sitcom comeback One Day at a Time would be canceled the next day). Moreno served as host, alongside actor Andy Garcia who sat in on congas with Feliciano and Gloria Estefan.

It was heartening that the strongest music of the night came from the younger and purest Latin performers, particularly the Peruvian singer Gian Marco, who played the charango and sang “Hoy,” and Emily Estefan, the honorees’ 24 year old daughter, who got a standing ovation for playing timpani and singing a fiery medley of “Mi Tierra” and “Oye Mi Canto.”

Her literal godfather, Quincy Jones, was on hand as well to make remarks at the beginning and perhaps to make people think on the eve of his 86th birthday: Why hasn’t he gotten a Gershwin Prize yet? (The previous winners are, in order: Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Smokey Robinson, and Tony Bennett).

One also wondered why some of the many artists who have recorded with Emilio Estefan couldn’t have come, from Shakira to J-Lo. (Others, such as Marc Anthony and Jon Seceda, made do with filmed greetings). But coordinating these things can be hard (one group listed in the program, Il Divo, wasn’t there at all).

But front and center in the audience was one of the top Latin dignitaries in DC, Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Though she clapped and sang along from her seat, it may not have been in the ideal location, as the cameramen for the upcoming TV special kept running back and forth in front of her all night—and it was no conga line.

“Emilio & Gloria Estefan: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song” will air on PBS May 3 at 9PM (check local listings).

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