Kennedy: Usher poised to slay at Super Bowl LVIII

Usher arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Feb. 9, 2020, in Beverly Hills, Calif. / Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File
Usher arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Feb. 9, 2020, in Beverly Hills, Calif. / Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/File

Almost everyone in my family identifies as a country music fan. When we go on family vacations, the car radio always gets locked in on a country hits station, and I'm just an innocent bystander who gets slathered in twang.

I try to smile during these slide-guitar marathons, but with a few exceptions, country music just doesn't do it for me.

Meanwhile, I love 1970s R&B music — along with a sprinkle of jazz and a dash of funk. As a kid, my LP stack was filled with albums by Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau, Lionel Richie, James Brown and Michael Jackson. My favorite band in the 1970s was Tower of Power, a horn-powered funk group from Oakland, California.

As a kid growing up in the South, I realized that I was something of an outlier, as my friends reminded me by worshiping '70s-era rock bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith and Lynyrd Skynyrd. (For the record: Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" played for two years in a continuous loop on the jukebox in my high school cafeteria. The opening guitar notes are burned into my temporal lobe and will probably be the last memory to leave my skull when my mind turns to mush.)

But my ears want what they want.

If I ever have a heart attack, they can skip the defibrillator and just play Stevie Wonder's uptempo ode to childhood, "I Wish," which is guaranteed to jerk my heart back into rhythm.

All this talk about the 1970s is just my way of setting up an endorsement for Sunday night's Super Bowl LVIII halftime show headlined by Usher, a.k.a. Usher Raymond IV, who sang in the choir at St. Elmo Missionary Baptist Church here as a boy and attended Dalewood Middle School before he moved to Atlanta as a teenager and became an international R&B star.

(Read More: Usher to headline 2024 Super Bowl halftime show.)

And if you think Usher is a surprising choice for the Super Bowl, then perhaps you haven't been keeping up with his recent career resurgence in Las Vegas, where he has been in residence at Caesars Palace and the Park MGM resort hotels for much of the last three years.

(Read More: Usher returns to Chattanooga to honor his grandmother.)

A recent long-form feature article in GQ magazine called Usher the "King of Vegas," explaining he had become "one of the most sought-after performers in a town already overflowing with sought-after performers" when his residency ended late last year. What better way to headline a Super Bowl halftime in Las Vegas than to stage three years' worth of dress rehearsals in Sin City.

For many of us old-timers, Usher is essentially the keeper of the male R&B flame; unless you count Bruno Mars, who is a master of several musical genres. At age 45, Usher also bridges generations, with the sweet spot of his fan base being middle-age women who have flocked to his shows in Vegas to see him sing — and sweat.

The trailer to Usher's Super Bowl halftime performance is titled, "One performance. 30 years in the making," and it truly does tell the story of a career that started here in the mid-1990s. The opening scene is a church choir, and the short video includes a clip of LeBron James dancing to Usher's 2004 club anthem "Yeah!" (Wow, has it been 20 years?)

For kicks, I went to the newspaper archives and unearthed an interview I did with Usher back in 1995. He was 16 years old at the time, and he was returning to Chattanooga after his first flash of fame to do a benefit concert at the Chattanooga Trade and Convention Center. His self-titled first album, "Usher," had spun off a couple of radio hits and he was just back from a stint in Europe.

Barely old enough to drive a car, young Usher told me he wanted to be a "triple threat," meaning a master of singing, dancing and acting. "I consider myself to be a unique talent," he said, swollen with confidence.

I think I might have snickered under my breath.

But I'm not laughing now.

Quick prediction: Usher slays Sunday night in Las Vegas and reminds us of a time when R&B was not only cool, but — for some of us — it was the pinnacle of popular music.

Put it this way: If more people are talking tomorrow morning about Usher than Taylor Swift, I won't be surprised.

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.

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