Music Royalty Gathers to Pay Respect to Aretha Franklin 

Cliff Lipson/CBS
Smokey Robinson shares memories of his good friend Aretha Franklin during the CBS tribute, Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for hr Queen of Soul

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 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, Céline Dion, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Patti LaBelle, Janelle Monáe, SZA and BeBe Winans.

Legendary TV producer Ken Ehrlich, who executive produces the special, reveals that when he was seeking artists to join the tribute, “We didn’t get many noes.” 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.”

Aretha’s Music Inspires Today’s Artists

The CBS two-hour concert event is hosted by actor/producer Tyler Perry and features a special tribute from Smokey Robinson, Franklin’s childhood friend and fellow Motown superstar. During the January taping of the event at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, Robinson shared memories of Franklin and said, “She was a gifted songwriter, a fantastic musician and a great, formidable activist. For me, she was my little sister who I loved so much. I still love her so much.”

Jennifer Hudson performs during Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul. Cliff Lipson/CBS

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 Monáe 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.”

Other song pairings include Céline Dion singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Patti LaBelle delivering a soulful rendition of “Call Me.” Alicia Keys played piano and sang “Day Dreaming” with SZA, and Yolanda Adams sang “Young, Gifted and Black” while Common interjected it with politically motivated rap lyrics. “Obviously, you can’t do an Aretha tribute show without doing ‘Natural Woman,’” says 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.”

The Franklin-Ehrlich Friendship Makes A Magical Music Moment

Producer Ken Ehrlich. Monty Brinton/CBS

Ken Ehrlich, who has executive produced countless music-related specials including Grammy and Emmy broadcasts, Q 85: A Musical Celebration for Quincy Jones and February’s Elvis All-Star Tribute, shares insight into his longtime professional and personal relationship with Aretha Franklin. “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.”

Ehrlich shares that his favorite memory of working with Franklin came at the 1998 Grammys, when she stepped in mid-broadcast 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 shares. “I remembered that Aretha had done ‘Nessun Dorma’ at 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 sound check, 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.

Aretha! A Grammy Celebration For The Queen Of Soul > CBS > March 10 at 9pm