Inside the ‘Aretha!’ Grammy Tribute: What the Expect From CBS’ All-Star Night

Cliff Lipson/CBS

When it comes to assembling performers to salute the Queen of Soul, there’s one overriding requirement.

“You have to be a singer to sing an Aretha Franklin song,” says Ken Ehrlich, the busy executive producer of the Grammys and many other primetime music specials — the latest of which gets an emphatic exclamation point with Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul.

Indeed, Jennifer Hudson wastes no time tearing into a medley of “Respect,” “Think” and “Ain’t No Way” to start this tribute concert, which was taped at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium in January. “It’s unbelievable,” the producer says of the star’s vocal prowess.

When Franklin died last August at 76 in her beloved Detroit, she was undisputed R&B royalty. Using her gospel-trained voice, she became a soaring soul success with an indelible string of 1960s hits that mirrored the power of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. “We all know who Aretha was, and her contribution to music,” Ehrlich says. “All we really tried to do was to gather a number of complementary artists who, if there’s a common bond between them, it’s the influence she had on their lives.”

Celine Dion, Alicia Keys, Yolanda Adams and Smokey Robinson are among the top-flight singers who take part alongside younger acolytes such as Alessia Cara, Chloe X Halle, Janelle Monáe and SZA. Actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry hosts the evening.

Franklin left a treasure trove of titles to dig into, from “Baby I Love You” and “Chain of Fools” to “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Freeway of Love.” But some of the deeper cuts stand out as well, Ehrlich notes, citing John Legend‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Patti LaBelle’s “Call Me” and a stirring version of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by Common and Adams.

Matching the right piece to the right singer was a challenge, Ehrlich adds: “You can’t have everyone sing ‘Respect.'”

Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul, Sunday, March 10, 9/8c, CBS