DeRo reviews Oprah’s singing | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

Really, Oprah: It wasn’t THAT bad!

With only 30 shows left in her much-hyped “farewell season,” Oprah Winfrey today confessed to the biggest “blunders and bloopers” throughout her show’s long history, inviting the audience to vote on its choice for her number-one gaffe.

“But our first clip isn’t up for a vote because I already know what was the all-time, hands-down, ‘What was I thinking?’ moment,” Winfrey said at the start of the show. “I don’t need anybody to vote on it. Jesus already told me!”

What was this Titanic/iceberg moment? The host’s decision at the start of her 13th season in 1998 to replace the old theme song sung by Patti LaBelle with a ditty called “Roll On” sung by none other than… the Big O herself, fresh from a summer break spent taking singing and dancing lessons.

Mind you, I am not a habitual Oprah-watcher. But my old pal and Sun-Times colleague Darel Jevens—who serves as the paper’s television editor, in addition to wearing many other hats—emailed me on Wednesday: “It’s sort of vague, but this promo sort of hints that Oprah tomorrow finally will admit that singing her own theme song was a mistake. And so that particular footnote in your career comes full circle.”

How does this pertain to me? Well, the challenge for every daily newspaper critic is balancing coverage of what he or she finds interesting and of artistic merit with what the editors insist is “newsworthy.” Sometimes, the critic wins: I succeeded in never having to watch or write about “American Idol” once during my 15-year Sun-Times tenure (though I did have to review a few of the live arena concerts). But sometimes the critic loses.

Whether my protests were overridden, or I just didn’t have the energy to fight that particular battle, I found myself tuning into “The Oprah Show” for the first time in 1998 and writing the following review:

Oprah Winfrey may not be a “sang-ah!,” as she called the inimitable Patti LaBelle. But Chicago’s favorite talk show host held her own when she warbled her much-ballyhooed new theme song on the premiere yesterday of her 13th season.

Winfrey sang “Run On With Oprah” in a music video--she wasn’t cocky enough to try it live, at least not yet--utilizing an easy mid-range vocal that was laid-back and conversational. Sort of appropriate, when you consider that she gabs for a living.

Cribbing heavily from an African-American spiritual, the song (which was co-written by Buck Stewart and the show’s producers) was full of stock spiritual aphorisms about reaching for the light and such. But it was a damn sight more inspiring and believable than anything on Madonna’s similarly New Agey “Ray of Light.”

For that matter, I have no doubt that Oprah if she put her mind to it could out-sing Madonna, not to mention alternative rockers like Courtney Love or any of those one-name young rap/R&B crooners like Brandy or Monica. In pop music, personality outweighs virtuosity every time. And we all know that Oprah has personality to spare.

On the other hand, a real R&B great like LaBelle could wipe the floor with her.

Oprah, honey, maybe you don’t wanna quit your day job just yet. We’ll give ya this one, but leave the rest of the singing to the “sang-ahs!”

Star rating for “Run On With Oprah”: [three stars]

The morning those words ran in the paper, I arrived at my desk to find a voice-mail message with an absurdly enthusiastic, drawn-out delivery. (Unlike another message I got a few years later, I didn’t save it, but I did play it for everyone in the office at the time.)

“Jiiiiiiiiiiim DeeeeeeeeeeRogaaaaaaaaaaatis! It’s Oprah Winfrey!” The queen of syndicated television was calling to thank me for the review. "I never expected anybody would write about my singing, much less like it. Thankyouthankyouthankyou, thank you!"

I can count on one hand the number of calls of this kind I’ve ever received; a few years earlier, I'd given Billy Corgan three stars on the paper's four-star scale, and he'd referred to me onstage at Metro (during a live radio broadcast, no less) as "that fat f--- from the Sun-Times." Though if Oprah had really wanted to bond, nothing would have cemented the mutual admiration society more than picking one of my tomes for her book club.

In any event, I stand by that review: Oprah's singing really wasn't that bad! True, it did not rise to the level of Cee Lo Green, who appeared as a special guest and belted out his version of “Run On” today. But the Gnarls Barkley vocalist could sing a Chinese takeout menu and make it sound genius.

Besides, Oprah did her warbling before the explosion of on-the-fly Auto-Tuning. If you want to talk about “singers” on the current pop scene who really should be ashamed to open their mouths, just give a listen to Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Scarlett Johansson, or Rebecca Black, to name a few.

She may not be my favorite thing, but I’ll take Oprah over them any day. (You can listen here and judge for yourself.)


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