TV REVIEWS : ROSS AND SIMON IN MUSIC SPECIALS

After a string of undistinguished albums, it's nice to see Diana Ross swinging for the fences in tonight's hourlong ABC-TV special, "Red Hot Rhythm & Blues," airing at 9 p.m. on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42. The results are wildly uneven, but when she's on target, Ross does a marvelous job of recapturing the seductive sass of her black musical heritage.

The show spotlights her in a dual role, as a contemporary pop diva and as an aging songstress reliving some of her past glories. The most riveting moments are the sepia-toned flashback sequences, which include a raucous church choir scene where a pigtailed Ross swaps vocal licks with Little Richard, guest-starring as a fiery preacher.

Later, she's reunited with "Lady Sings the Blues" co-star Billy Dee Williams as they glide through an elegant, top-hat 'n' tails duet during a soul-revue sketch.

Unfortunately, the program keeps returning to the modern-day Ross. The pop starlet looks as glamorous as ever, but her new material has none of the gritty vibrancy or erotic jolt of the R&B; gems she so cherishes.

Outfitted in a slinky black dress and an array of flowing scarfs, she handles her big number, "Dirty Looks," as if she were auditioning for "The Stevie Nicks Story." There's so much smoke billowing around her ankles and wind wafting through her hair that you'd bet she ended up with a bad case of chapped lips.

The show might have had considerably more punch if Ross had spent more time paying homage to her influences than to herself. One striking scene offers Ross as a young R&B; singer, cutting a foxy version of LaVern Baker's "Tweedlee Dee."

After she's done, she watches in horror as a ditzy songstress (whose major qualification is that she's white) wobbles in and performs a more commercially acceptable cover version. It's a scabrously funny moment--and Bernadette Peters is a hoot as the hilariously inept replacement.

Unfortunately, Ross seems determined to smooth over the rough edges that represent the true annals of rhythm and blues. This gal is more intrigued by silk than soul. By the time the special concludes with a schmaltzy video-trick duet (between her aged alter-ego and Ross' favorite crooner--herself), you wonder how much of this extravaganza is a genuine R&B; tribute and how much a lavish attempt to secure for the regal Ms. Ross a solid niche in the pop pantheon.

Paul Simon is far from the most charismatic entertainer of our time--we'd rank him somewhere between Roger Whittaker and Huey Lewis. But in his new cable TV special, "Graceland: The African Concert," airing throughout this month on Showtime, he's a gracious--and generous--host who surrounds himself with the kind of incandescent performers (most notably jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela and singer Miriam Makeba) who really make the sparks fly.

Taped in February before 20,000 fans at Zimbabwe's Rufaro Stadium, the 90-minute concert is a joyous, affecting occasion, full of shared emotion, a sense of community and--best of all--a burst of hope, a rare commodity in adjacent South Africa these days.

Simon is joined by a host of black South African musicians as well as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a colorful ensemble of a cappella crooners whose baggy, abstract-design jerseys give them the air of a squad of golden-throated South African hockey players. (In contrast, Simon in his white T-shirt and jeans looks like he just came from a beer-league softball game in Central Park.)

Perhaps realizing that Simon is not a particularly riveting presence, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg illustrates the opening of each song with remarkable glimpses of life away from the concert, offering shots of a mother washing her child in the street, kids dancing in front of a barbed-wire fence and army tanks caught in rush-hour traffic. Seeing these images, punctuated by such songs as "Stimela," Masekela's dramatic tale of life in the gold mines, we realize how much of a message can be sent through music.

Simon's "Graceland" songs have been criticized for shying away from a direct blast at apartheid. But when his interracial choir reminds us that "these are the days of miracle and wonder," you can't help feeling that part of the miracle is the wondrous spirit that accompanies this concert.

"Graceland" airs tonight at 8 on Showtime, with additional dates Sunday, 10 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., and May 29 at 1:30 and 11 p.m.

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