Gladys Knight aka the Empress of Soul is known for her grace, style and fantastic voice. And yet the music icon is a judge on a new singing talent show in which the audience heckles and boos the contestants.
"Apollo Live" isn't exactly new. Harlem's landmark Apollo Theater has long been home to a talent show in which the toughest critics are sitting in the seats.
It's a very different audience than the one Knight encountered when she sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in its 2000 Christmas concert. "I can't even compare them," she said with a laugh. "['Apollo Live'] is a completely different thing."
The TV talent show is out to capture the energy of the theater and the crowd in a weekly show that dates back 75 years.
"The dynamics and the energy and the interaction between the audience and the performer onstage are unlike anything in the world," said executive producer Don Weiner. "And that electricity the performers feel when they step on the stage, it's a combination of kind of fear and dreams and hopes and dread."
"Apollo Live" is all about music, but the Apollo features all sorts of talent. And comedians get the same treatment.
"They started booing before I even got on the stage," said executive producer Jamie Foxx.
Judge Doug E. Fresh said it's the hardest audience you can perform in front of in America "because of the boos. The boos is crazy. It teaches you how to become a better performer."
Clearly, sister networks Centric and BET are hoping this will be their equivalent of "American Idol" or "The Voice." But it has an entirely different energy less produced, less coached, more raw talent.
Knight said she loved her stint as a guest judge on the first season of "Idol" and wanted to work with the contestants. But she discovered they already had "so much to help them in that arena."
Not so "Apollo Live."
"Step on the stage at the Apollo, you probably just came from your apartment," she said. "It's raw. It's live."
Knight, 68, began performing publicly before she started school. Signed to the Motown label in 1966, Gladys Knight and the Pips won three Grammys, while Knight went on to win four as a solo artist.
And she's hearing contemporary music that sounds familiar in today's music business. "They are going back stealing our stuff," she said with a smile. "They know it's something special about that time, about that music and all of that. R. Kelly and anybody else out there is going back to get the old stuff because it touched us where we lived. It was more about life and not all the time about sex. It was about romance. It was about social issues, which they sing about today, but in a different way."
And Knight has a different way as a judge. She's open to giving everyone a chance, never discounting anyone based on physical appearances. "I use Jennifer Hudson as a good example," she said. "But there is a certain chutzpah, if I can use that word, that somebody has that will touch you right here, and that's what I look for. "
The singing competition premieres Sunday, Nov. 25, at 8:30 p.m. on Centric (Channel 481 on Comcast; Channel 330 on DirecTV; and Channel 371 on Dish Network.
It also airs Sunday at 11:30 p.m. on BET (Channels 56 and 728 on Comcast; Channel 329 on DirecTV; and Channel 124 on Dish Network).