"Clash of the Choirs" runs live four nights in a row, starting Monday. Five choirs compete to win charity money for hometown causes. Viewers phone in votes.
Each choir is run by a music star who assembled it. So LaBelle found people for her choir in her hometown of Philadelphia: Nick Lachey in Cincinnati ; Michael Bolton in New Haven, Conn.; Kelly Rowland in Houston, and Blake Shelton in Oklahoma City.
The phone conference with LaBelle and Bolton was weirder than most, since LaBelle was on her mobile phone, shopping, and couldn't hear some questions.
The winning choir will donate the "significant" prize money (NBC isn't saying how much) to its charity of choice.
"Choirs" is a four-night event with the finale scheduled to air 8 p.m. Thursday. The show will feature music genres ranging from today's pop hits to traditional holiday classics to inspirational gospel.
Unlike "Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" and " America's Got Talent" and "So You Think You Could Dance" and, well, just about every other competition reality show on television, there are no judges on "Choirs." After the choirs perform, the stars offer their critiques, but it's up to viewers to pick a winner.
"I didn't want to judge people and tell them that they're not good," said LaBelle. "My whole problem was having to say 'no' to people. But what I said to the ones who didn't make it (was) that doesn't mean that it's the end of your life. Patti LaBelle does not control the rest of your life."
Bolton, who has sold more than 53 million records and crooned with the likes of Ray Charles and Luciano Pavarotti, said he's thrilled to be part of such an uplifting show in which the participants are built up, not torn down.
As for the rules of the game, choir members had to be of amateur status and no age restrictions were placed on participants ( Bolton's group includes an 18-year-old man and a 77-year-old woman). Each live broadcast will see the removal of one choir via viewer voting.
And as unscripted television goes, Clash of the Choirs promises to be a less savage affair than, say, America's Next Top Model.
There are no promises of instant fame awaiting the choir left standing in next Thursday's finale. Instead, and in keeping with the giving season, each celebrity choirmaster is working toward a previously designated charitable project - Lachey has promised to build a new wing on a children's hospital, while LaBelle wants to establish an outreach group for cancer victims in her old West Philadelphia neighbourhood. "It's not about cash prizes or career," Raff says. "They really are doing this for selfless reasons."
In the program's most inventive twist, each celebrity was allowed free rein in assembling his or her choir's repertoire. Fittingly, the good ol' boy Shelton opts for a down-home approach and a few Willie Nelson tunes; Bolton is taking the soulful approach; and LaBelle's choir will present a veritable grab bag of musical tastes.
"Without getting into specifics, we've narrowed it down to seven songs, which includes pop, rock, gospel, country and western and a Christmas song," LaBelle says.
And for once, any indication of reality-show fakery has been kept to a minimum. In recent weeks, the producers of Clash of the Choirs have taken great pains to keep the rehearsal process top secret in each city, which could lead to a few surprises in the first show. "I'm going to work them so hard they're going to cry!" LaBelle promises. "I know we're going to have a lot of tears, but sometimes tears bring out the best in a live show. Cry, but don't stop singing."