A retha Franklin, the gospel powerhouse that began her music career at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church in the early ’50s, where her father was minister, is a legend to be celebrated beyond Michigan’s state lines. Following the singer’s death in August, celebrities ranging across genres and generations, such as Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Janelle Monáe, and Celine Dion, just to name a few, spoke publicly about the influence that the Queen of Soul’s booming voice had on their own sounds. Big names like Jennifer Hudson, the Dream Girls actress and singer set to play `Franklin in an upcoming biopic of the Queen, childhood friend and Motown alum Smokey Robinson, R&B singer Alicia Keys, and many more, came together to commemorate Franklin’s more than 50-year career with the television tribute, “Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul.” The two-hour concert aired on CBS last night.
The evening started off hot and fast with Jennifer Hudson. The 37-year-old Chicago native, who was chosen by Franklin herself to play the young Detroit gospel-singer in the to-be-released 2020 film Respect before she died, sang two of her anthems, “Respect” and “Ain’t No Way.” Her performance earned a standing ovation, proving that J-Hud can, without a doubt, handle the task of singing Franklin’s robust and demanding body of work. Shortly after, she gave the stage over to host Tyler Perry, who told of how his mother would blare Franklin’s 1967 hit, “Dr. Feelgood,” when his parents had just made love. “I wish I didn’t know this much about my parents’ sex life,” the 49-year-old comedian joked.
Following Hudson’s performance, R&B singer Alicia Keys took to the piano to sing a sultry rendition of “Move to the Spirit,” with nine-time Grammy nominated R&B artist SZA. Keys, many times before, has cited Franklin as one of her biggest musical inspirations, and the feeling was mutual. In 2014, the Queen of Soul sang Keys’ 2007 hit “No One” for her 38th and last studio album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, which was released in 2014. Soon after, Janelle Monáe performed a fast-tempo take on “Rock Steady.” The song, and the success it received, is a testament to Franklin’s rise: in 1971, the year it was released, the single came in at #9 on the Hot 100 Billboards and at #2 on the Best-Selling Soul Singles chart.
“Aretha Franklin had a once-in-a-lifetime voice that helped so many others, like me, to find our own voices in this world,” remarked American Idol winner and The Voice judge Kelly Clarkson, who credits Franklin for helping her break out of her shell and overcome her shyness as a child. The Houston native then launched into Franklin’s first release by Atlantic Records in 1967, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” Clarkson’s favorite Franklin song. John Legend sat at a piano, gushing, “I’m honored to salute the Queen by singing a song that demonstrated her genius as an interruptive singer, ranger, and musician.” He sang her cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and moved the crowd.
Smokey Robinson would later appear to recount what Franklin’s childhood life was like in Detroit. “She was the girl next door. In fact, she was the girl right around the corner who became a lifelong friend, who became a musical icon,” he said. Robinson mentioned the first time he met, at the time, 6-year-old Franklin at her family’s Detroit “mansion” and playing kick the can and hide-and-go-seek in their neighborhood of La Salle Gardens. Both became figureheads for Detroit’s Motown, the record label that established a genre of the same name: a soulful-rock hybrid that also spotlighted Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Mary Wells, and many more.
The night closed out with a performance by some of the most prominent gospel singers in the country, honoring Franklin’s liturgical roots. Houston gospel singer Yolanda Adams, came onstage to sing “Never Grow Old,” Shirley Caesar, also known as the First Lady of gospel, sang “Mary Don’t You Weep,” and Detroit-born singer Bebe Winans appeared, singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The three came on stage to sing together in the end, paying their respects to the Queen of Soul.
The evening concluded with a performance by Brandi Carlile, Fantasia, Andra Day, and Alessia Cara. The four harmonized “You Make Me Feel,” presumably making the crowd feel great appreciation for a legend.
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