You hear it over and over during Sunday’s concert “Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul”: There will never be another Aretha Franklin.
Truer words were never spoken — or sung. Kelly Clarkson, Brandi Carlile, Chloe and Alessia Cara give effective interpretations of the classic Franklin R & B hits, but you’ll have to wait for gospel singer Yolanda Adams to hear someone who matches Franklin in her depth, command and supple range.
The audience, gathered in LA’s Shrine Auditorium, has a blast, embracing all the performers, rising to its feet on several occasions. Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”), often mentioned as the ideal singer to play Franklin, who died in August of last year, in a biopic, gets things off to a rowdy start with a medley of the hits “Ain’t No Way” and “Respect.”
Amiable host Tyler Perry introduces the rest of the acts, telling stories about his parents (“If my mother was playing ‘Respect’ or ‘Think,’ my father had done something wrong,” he says) and how the singer once called him up and asked to speak to Madea, his feature-film alter ego. Smokey Robinson tells stories of holding talent contests at his family’s house when Aretha’s family moved to his Detroit neighborhood (Franklin usually won).
These humorous moments help humanize Franklin, who loved the title Queen of Soul but who was equally at home watching soap operas as she was singing opera pieces such as “Nessun Dorma.”
Performers include Grammy Awards host Alicia Keys, who teams up with SZA for a soulful rendition of “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Janelle Monáe, snazzy in a black-and-white striped suit, goes down into the audience to make them part of her performance of “Rock Steady” and everybody’s up on their feet.
Franklin’s hit-and-miss pop period is recalled by Andra Day with a funky take on her massive 1985 hit “Freeway of Love.” The often merely loud Fantasia nearly drowns out Rob Thomas on a cover of “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me,” Franklin’s duet with the late George Michael.
All of the singers are having a great time up there, getting off on actually booking the gig, but the decision to include the moldy anthem “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” on which Franklin was originally paired with Annie Lennox in her “Eurythmics” days, was a mistake, and the cocktail lounge delivery by Chloe x Halle did not shake off the cobwebs.
In addition to her status as a feminist symbol and civil rights activist, Franklin’s talents as an arranger and interpreter of other people’s hits are given their due. Celine Dion, looking fabulous in a frilly bright yellow skirt, wins over the church ladies in the audience with her rousing rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” John Legend thrillingly recreates Franklin’s soaring arrangement of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” adding a welcome male voice to the parade of leather-lunged divas.
Any time the producers cut away from the performances to clips of Franklin singing, her majesty seems more profound now than it did when she was alive. Raised in church, she was touched by the divine when she sang. The closest the CBS concert comes to approximating that feeling is when gospel singer Yolanda Adams lets loose on the Nina Simone tune “Young, Gifted and Black” and the gospel number “How I Got Over” (sung with BeBe Winans and Shirley Caesar). We are reminded of what moved Franklin to sing in the first place at the New Bethel church when in the presence of these modern masters: Joy and faith.
By Robert Rorke