Less than six months after Aretha Franklin’s passing due to pancreatic cancer, musical superstars gathered for a celebration of her life and work in “Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul.”
The star-studded event airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS and features performances of Franklin’s best-loved songs by artists including Yolanda Adams, Shirley Caesar, Alessia Cara, Brandi Carlile, Chloe x Halle, Kelly Clarkson, Common, Celine Dion, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Patti LaBelle, Janelle Monae, SZA and BeBe Winans.
Ken Ehrlich, who executive produces the special, reveals that when he was seeking artists to join the tribute, “We didn’t get many no’s.” He adds, “Every artist that came here to do the show did it because of the respect and love and influence that Aretha Franklin was on their lives.”
Ehrlich’s friendship with Franklin goes back many years: “I met her in 1981, which was 38 years ago,” he recalls. “It was my second Grammy show, and she did ‘Can’t Turn You Loose,’ which is a great song, and she killed it on the show.”
His favorite memory of working with Franklin came at the 1998 Grammys, when she stepped in midbroadcast to perform an opera selection for an ill Luciano Pavarotti. “We were already on the air, and I got a call from Pavarotti saying, ‘I can’t sing tonight,’ ” Ehrlich says. “I remembered that Aretha had done ‘Nessun Dorma’ at a party two nights before, so I ran up to her dressing room and asked her if she would do it, and she said yes. Then we found out the music was three keys away, and she still said she could do it.”
After listening to a recording of Pavarotti’s soundcheck, Franklin took the stage, shocking those in attendance and viewers watching around the world. “It was a really magical moment,” recalls Ehrlich. “Television is not known for having many surprises anymore, but this was genuine. Nobody in the house — I mean nobody — knew that she was going to do this when the show went on the air.” And, in true Aretha Franklin style, she delivered one of the most moving and memorable performances of her career.
The two-hour CBS concert event honoring Franklin is hosted by actor/producer Tyler Perry and features a special tribute from Smokey Robinson, Franklin’s childhood friend and fellow Motown superstar.
Ehrlich and music director Rickey Minor carefully considered the talents of each of the special’s performers when selecting songs from Franklin’s impressive catalog of hits. Ehrlich reveals, “Jennifer Hudson (who will star as Franklin in the upcoming biopic “Respect” and who kicks off the evening with a rousing rendition of “Think”) was remarkable. Janelle Monae does ‘Rock Steady,’ and it’s pretty incredible. Everybody — I mean all the artists — really delivered. The gospel segment that we did with Yolanda, Shirley Caesar and BeBe Winans is great.
“Obviously, you can’t do an Aretha tribute show without doing ‘Natural Woman,’ ” adds Ehrlich, “and I thought, ‘OK. Let’s move it now to the next generation.’ So I had Alessia Cara, Fantasia, Brandi Carlile and Andra Day sing it.
“Even though Aretha wasn’t there at the show, her spirit was there,” Ehrlich continues. “You could tell that these artists lovingly approached every song that they did.”