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Tribute to Aretha Franklin highlights Stellar Gospel Awards

He needed a legend to pay tribute to a legend.

Not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., then-budding television producer Don Jackson set out to honor the civil rights activist with “Living the Dream,” an entertainment special created by his Central City Productions.

Jackson reached out to R&B great Aretha Franklin to appear on the show, her voice as outsize as the legacy of the man being venerated.

Franklin had a personal connection to Dr. King: Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, worked with King, who spoke at the Detroit church he presided over on numerous occasions.

There was just one problem.

“We were producing (the show) in Los Angeles, so I called Aretha and she said, ‘Well, Don, you know I don’t travel that far to L.A. I don’t like air travel. But if you bring a camera to Detroit, I’d be more than happy to talk about Dr. King,’ ” Jackson recalls. “So I sent a camera crew, one camera.

“When we got there, Aretha had set this up in a beautiful church with her background singers, musicians. It was just huge,” he adds with a chuckle. “So we had to get two additional cameras and lights and sound. She talked about her father’s relationship to Dr. King and then she sang this beautiful version of ‘Amazing Grace,’ which just blew it away and really made our show.”

Decades later, Franklin again helped make one of Jackson’s shows.

During the 34th Stellar Awards, which Jackson created in 1970 to salute the best in gospel music, Franklin was remembered with an all-star tribute performed by singers Kelly Price, Regina Belle and Erica Campbell. Franklin, who died last August, was also bestowed the Stellar Icon Award, a lifetime achievement honor that will be named after her from now on.

The show, which was taped March 29 at Orleans Arena, will air on BET at 7 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. April 28 on local CW affiliate KVCW.

The gospel according to Aretha

Though she is perhaps best known for her iconic catalog of soul standards, Franklin is one of gospel music’s most important figures, a crossover star who got her start in the genre and never lost touch with her roots, even when she became a mainstream star.

“People don’t recognize that she never strayed away from the gospel music,” Jackson says. “Many of the popular artists, like for instance, Whitney Houston, she loved gospel music. She would come to our show time after time.

“When we taped our show in New York, Whitney Houston sang background, but her record company said that we could not use her name in the credits, we could not promote that she was going to be there. Her recording company did want her to cross over by any means, but that was the music she loved. For Aretha Franklin, she did not let her record company dictate to her that she had to give up this form. People don’t realize that closeness that she had.”

This closeness will be highlighted during Sunday’s broadcast, a ceaselessly high-energy two-hour show.

During rehearsal, the lights went down and the mood went up at once.

Show host Kirk Franklin bounded onto the stage like caffeine incarnate, sitting down at a piano, flanked by a 26-member gospel choir, who pointed their fingers to the sky, their voices following suit.

The bass lines were robust, meted out by a fiery live band, and so was the sense of power that filled the room.

“The revolution is taking place tonight in Las Vegas,” Franklin exhorted. “The revolution will be televised.”

Back on BET

For the first time in 15 years, the Stellar Awards will be televised on BET, returning to the biggest network targeting African American audiences.

“It means a lot in the fact that they recognize the growth of the Stellar Awards over the past 15 years, the star quality we’ve been able to bring to the program and their commitment to the genre of gospel music, which is huge,” Jackson says. “That is really where BET started some 25-30-plus years ago, when they had the ‘Bobby Jones Gospel Show’ and they were really big in that arena.”

Speaking of big, the Stellar Awards have grown substantially in recent years, resulting in a much more elaborate, high-watt show.

“We’ve gone from five cameras with one jib to 12 cameras and two jibs,” Jackson says. “We’re able to capture everything. We have elevated our production to the extent that we have LED walls from the floor to the ceiling.”

If the Stellar Awards have grown, so has the reach of gospel music itself.

Mainstream music stars such as popster Tori Kelly and rapper Snoop Dogg have delved into the genre of late, and the breadth of influences gospel mines has grown as well, incorporating hip-hop, for instance, which the Stellar Awards now acknowledge with the rap hip-hop gospel CD of the year category.

“The growth of gospel music, it’s no longer just the traditional gospel music artists,” Jackson says. “These artists are not afraid to cross over. The music does not sound like it did a lot of years ago.”

The Stellar Awards still acknowledge genre stalwarts such as BeBe &CeCe Winans, Fred Hammond, Shirley Caesar and Donnie McKlurkin. But this year’s show highlights the range in styles by opening with a performance by gospel veteran Hezekiah Walker and closing with a number by up-and-comer Jekalyn Carr.

Ultimately, though, this night belonged to Aretha and the emotionally charged tribute to her, remembering the Queen of Soul as gospel royalty as well.

“When can you have special moments like that,” Jackson says, “that’s what we strive for.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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