What: Aretha Franklin Tribute Show
When: Saturday, Jan. 12, 7:30 p.m. (doors at 6:30)
Where: Dave Dunnet Community Theatre, 2121 Cadboro Bay Rd.
Tickets: $30 in advance from eventbrite.ca; $35 at the door
The five singers paying tribute to Aretha Franklin on Saturday night all have their own stories to tell about the Queen of Soul, a common thread being her role as an equal-rights pioneer and how it helped them forge their identities as performers.
Maria Manna, Maureen Washington, April Gislason, Susannah Adams and Shanna Dance are paying their respects to the late singer, who died of cancer in August, with a tribute at the Dave Dunnet Community Theatre in Oak Bay.
The event was conceived by Manna and Washington, two veterans of the local music scene who have sung their share of Franklin songs over the years. Washington has a deep connection to Franklin’s music, and wants the tribute to serve as a reminder of what was lost when the singer died.
“When you have someone like Aretha Franklin who has left an amazing mark on this world, you want to bring honour to her for all that she’s done,” Washington said. “Personally, being a black woman, she’s a pioneer who has made the music industry go so well for people like myself. I didn’t have to struggle like she did, like Ella Fitzgerald did. There’s such a humbleness to these great black singers and what they did for all of us as women.”
Washington and Manna hatched the idea a few months ago, and knew immediately they wanted to involve Gislason, a longtime friend and collaborator. Adams and Dance are newer connections, Washington said, but they proved they belonged during rehearsals. “All five singers have something to bring to the table.”
Dance said she was honoured to receive an invitation, having grown up with Franklin’s music.
“When they asked me to be part of the project, they didn’t know that Aretha was such a huge influence on me,” she said.
“I grew up in a musical family, and we always had music playing. Some of the first people I heard as a child were Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. From the age of three, I remember hearing Aretha’s voice and recognizing something different about her from other stuff I would hear on the radio; I knew she was something very special. Ever since, I’ve stuck to her as a role model, and listened to as much music of hers as I could.”
Each singer has three songs as a soloist, with backing from seven established Victoria musicians, led by pianist Karel Roessingh. The combo also includes bassist James Young, drummer David Emery, saxophonist Barrie Sorenson, trumpeter Dave Flello, guitarist Stewart McLellan and trombonist David Enns, players with connections to the Naden Band of the Royal Navy, Commodores Big Band, Lust Life Orchestra and Pretzel Logic Orchestra, among others.
When not doing their solos, the singers will join together as a backup chorus, supporting their “sisters” during their respective turns, Dance said.
In other spots, they will sing together as a unit. Chain of Fools, for example, will be handled by the group, with each singer taking a verse.
“Those are big shoes,” Washington said of Franklin’s legacy. “I don’t feel like I could fill her shoes alone, but a group of people could do it together. We’re a very diverse group, and I wanted to bridge that — singers who are newer and singers who have been doing this for a while.”
Dance is tackling the lead on You Send Me, Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and Baby, I Love You — three Franklin hits that have special meaning in her personal and professional life. “When we were choosing our songs, we were going to choose songs we were very drawn to,” she said. “But the show is about celebrating Aretha’s life. We’re not there to try and sound like Aretha or emulate her. We’re there to celebrate her music, but in our own style.”
As for who would sing (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, one of Franklin’s signature songs, that discussion was over before it began, Dance said with a laugh. The song has become synonymous with Washington locally, and the version she recorded in 2016 for her album Harvest Moon is a classy re-creation built around her powerhouse vocals. “We all said right away: ‘Maureen is doing Natural Woman,’ ” Dance said.
“But we didn’t really argue over tunes, because Aretha has so much music. We didn’t have any fights over who would do what.”
Manna and Washington purposely chose singers with disparate skillsets, to avoid a sense of sameness to the program. That said, Washington was surprised by the breadth of talent she helped bring together. “The really great thing with Aretha is that she’s done it all. Gospel, jazz and soul — all of it. The five of us have different strengths, so it was really easy to find the songs that resonated with each person.”