Pop: Stars join to tape benefit for UNICEF. By John Rockwell

Cynicism comes cheap in the world of popular music, and indeed in show business in general, where self congratulatory benefits, awash in sentimentality, occur with depressing frequency.

But “A Gift Of Song – The Music For UNICEF Concert,” which was taped live last night at the United Nations General Assembly and which will be seen tonight on NBC-TV from 8 to 9.30 p.m., and eventually worldwide to more than 70 countries, manages to transcend such reservations. One can quibble and one can grumble, and only time will tell how much money the whole package will actually raise – the producers estimate $100 million. But as an event, the concert proceeded with a dignity and purpose rare for this sort of all-star potpourri, and the result ennobled rather than demeaned the subject.

The subject is children. January 1st, 1979 marked the beginning of the U.N.’s International Year Of The Child, and in May 1978 Robert Stigwood, David Frost and The Bee Gees announced the origination of the Music for UNICEF concept. The idea was not only for a concert, telecast and live recording, but also for each principal participant to donate the future royalties from one song to the United Nations Children’s Fund, and for volunteer organizations to contribute further to a Music for UNICEF fund.

The participants in the concert, after Elton John withdrew with a reported illness, were The Bee Gees, who donated what is currently the No.1 song in the nation, Too Much Heaven, ABBA, Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson, John Denver, Earth, Wind and Fire, Andy Gibb, Olivia Newton-John, Rod Stewart and Donna Summer. The main host was Mr Frost, with assistance by Henry Winkler, Gilda Radner and Henry Fonda; Mr Fonda lent a special dignity with his reading from Anne Frank’s diary.

The selection of artists built outward from the success of Mr Stigwood and his RSO Records to include mostly other musicians associated with the mellow accessibility of 1970s mainstream popular music. Thus, the musical tone of the evening was far removed from such other all-star pop-music gatherings as Woodstock or the Music for Bangladesh concert. This was a collection of professional entertainers rather than revolutionaries; they offered a sexy, good time rather than a chance to change the world. And because Mr Stigwood represents the ultimate in modern-day corporate music moguls, the whole affair might have easily degenerated into a plasticized sham.

That it didn’t is a tribute first of all to the artists, who sang attractive, melodic, sincere-sounding songs that suited the subject. It was pleasant to see so many duets with artists paired in unexpected ways – Mr Kristofferson and Mr Stewart, Miss Newton-John and Mr (Andy) Gibb, and Miss Summer and Miss Coolidge. For this observer, Mr Denver’s moving account of his Rhymes And Reasons was the climax of the night, but everybody handled themselves up to their own best standards.

And even when they didn’t quite conform to the occasion, the performances had a polish and punk that won one over. Take Mr Stewart, who donated Maggie May, which surely won’t earn many more royalties for UNICEF – Maggie May wasn’t the only old song donated, but it was the oldest. And he sang his latest disco hit, Da Ya Think I’m Sexy, which doesn’t have much to do with children except in the procreative sense. But it was still fun, at least for those of us who like innocent irreverence, to see him strut and wiggle through his paces on the spot where the podium of the General Assembly normally rests.

There were other factors contributing to the success of the night. Sonically and visually the concert moved along smoothly, and whatever hitches there were will be edited out by the evening. The setting – large, black-and-white photographic blowups of children’s faces – was attractive and original, and in general the acts’ costuming avoided the silly, mindless glitter that mars nearly every television special. The script, too, stuck for the most part soberly and succinctly to the point.

Before the final medley, Secretary General Kurt Waldheim and Henry R. Labouisse, executive director of UNICEF, accepted a rather pretentious “parchment” on which all the artists had signed over the royalty rights. Their presence and short remarks lent an impressive sobriety to an occasion that could have very easily gone wrong, but didn’t. Transcribed for ABBA World

Photo: Olivia Newton-John and Andy Gibb during UNICEF concert staged last night and aired on T.V. tonight.

The New York Times · Wednesday, 10 January 1979 (Page 16)

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