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Aretha Franklin. // Illustration courtesy of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

Aretha Franklin honoured with show by Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra

By Troy Hasselman, February 4 2020 —

The songs of soul legend Aretha Franklin will be honoured by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra in concert on Feb. 21–22, in RESPECT! Honouring Aretha, which pairs the CPO with vocalists Capathia Jenkins and Ryan Shaw to play the hits of the late-singer alongside her contemporaries like Otis Redding. Capathia Jenkins has starred in Newsies on Broadway, has acted in numerous other musicals and appeared with countless orchestras across North America. Ryan Shaw has been nominated for three Grammys, has starred in many plays and had his music featured on numerous TV shows.

Speaking to the Gauntlet over the phone, Jenkins detailed how she became involved with the show and her lifelong relationship with Franklin’s music.

“A couple years ago, Lesley Sabol at the Houston Symphony and Lucas Waldin came up with this idea,” Jenkins says. “They called my manager and said ‘We think an Aretha tribute would be good. We want Capathia and we have a short list of male singers. We think it needs to be male and female in the show.’ He read the short list to me and I immediately said it has to be Ryan Shaw. I was completely honoured that they would think of me to do Aretha. I have been doing a lot of Ella Fitzgerald but It seemed like a perfect fit to me. I grew up listening to Aretha. It was always playing in the house and I just loved her throughout the years and really admired her. We started from here and I was allowed to have some input in what songs we would do and speaking to the arranger and figuring out the arrangements in things. I really felt like it was a gift and to have some ownership with it and how it’s done.”

In her lifetime Franklin had 112 singles reach the Billboard charts, sold 75 million albums and became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Figuring out a setlist for the show has caused some challenges, owing to the sheer volume of memorable music in Franklin’s catalogue.

Photo of Capathia Jenkins. // Photo courtesy of Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

“The catalogue she left in the world is massive,” Jenkins says. “For me, I wanted to do some of her early things and early hits. I also knew that we should absolutely do some of her gospel stuff. At that time, the Amazing Grace film had come out and I had gone and watched that and felt we had to do something from that. It’s a mixture of what are the hits? Practically, what charts do we have? What licenses can we get? It all goes into figuring out what that setlist is going to be. It’s a long drawn out process to figure out what Aretha songs and then we have Ryan. The evening is really all things Aretha, we have Ryan singing some Otis Redding. Otis wrote “Respect”, which people don’t know. Also the people that touched Aretha’s lives, her friends and all that. Trying to put together a program that would be a satisfying evening for the audience.”

Jenkins notes there were some nerves in the early planning of the show, with figuring out the running order of the show she has grown more comfortable with it. The enormity of Franklin’s legacy has posed challenges but has also inspired her to latch on to her essence for the performance.

“Aretha is always big shoes to fill,” Jenkins says. “I’m certainly not trying to imitate her but latch on to her essence, she was soulful and the thing that I love the most about her is that no matter what she is singing, whether it’s the American songbook or opera, she was always quintessentially herself. It’s her roots in gospel. You can always hear that soulful cry in her tone. For me it’s about latching onto that essence. As a performer, I’m nervous before every show and right before I walk onstage I could run from the building screaming from nerves but once I’m onstage and I sing my first note and say my first hello to an audience then I’m okay.”

Aretha Franklin first topped the charts in 1967 with her hit single “Respect” and remained a fixture in the music world until her death in 2018. Jenkins thinks that success can be owed to her unshakeable ability to remain true to herself throughout the constant changes that happened in the music landscape throughout her long career.

Photo of Ryan Shaw. // Photo courtesy of Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

“First of all, the actual songs and the music she put out was just so good. Nobody else sounds like her, no one else approaches music like her,” Jenkins says. “She was a singular talent. She did it for so many years, so many decades. She always had a hit. That longevity is really, really impressive in a world that seems to flip on a dime to the next hot thing. She was just enduring because I think she was so honest and just always who she was. It wasn’t about reinventing herself, it was about doing what she does the best, which is standing flat-footed on a stage and singing from the bottom of the soul. That can feel like a lost art sometimes but she did at the highest level really until the day she died. That’s what made her so beloved and so enduring around the world.”

Jenkins hopes for those attending will simply enjoy themselves and celebrate the countless timeless songs that Aretha Franklin put out in her life.

“If you’re coming to the show, just get ready to enjoy yourself and if you feel like you want to get up and dance you can do that,” Jenkins says. “Ryan and I are coming to have a good time and really celebrate all the goodness that Aretha left in the world.”

RESPECT! Honouring Aretha runs at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 21–22 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall. For more information about the show and to find tickets visit the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s website.

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