When it comes to television, Ken Ehrlich is Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Man.” The TV producer worked with the late Aretha Franklin for the first time in 1981 at his second-ever Grammys at Radio City Music Hall. Now his AEG Ehrlich Ventures is executive-producing (along with Clive Davis and Doug Davis) “Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul,” latest in a series of Recording Academy-sanctioned specials to air on CBS in March after the Grammys, following similar tributes to Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and Frank Sinatra.
The special was taped before a live audience Sunday night at the venerable Shrine Auditorium, an ornate house that turned into a rocking gospel church for most of the taping. Even with frequent stoppages to change sets, the high-energy crowd remained galvanized, from Jennifer Hudson (above) delivering an opening medley of Aretha’s ‘60s soul classics, bookended by “Think” and a fiery “Respect,” to the final foursome of Andra Day, Brandi Carlile, Alessia Cara and Fantasia joining ranks on a climactic “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
The producer insists the latter choice had nothing to do with Grammy night controversy over female representation. “I wanted to keep it young,” says Ehrlich, who has previously worked on versions of the song with Aretha for “Duets” and “Divas.” “The idea of having this next generation sing it reinforces the idea of passing the torch. I think you’ll find this year’s Grammys — just because of the state of music today — will be responsive to what happened last year, not deliberately, but as a result of the current nominations, the way things are right now.”
One of the evening’s highlights was Celine Dion’s take on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a song Aretha once memorably covered. The idea of Dion singing before a montage of civil rights history seemed slightly eyebrow-raising, but when the diva opened her mouth, resplendent in a billowing yellow gown, the multi-racial audience shouted their appreciation.
“That was her idea,” said Ehrlich. “I sent her a list of five or six, and that’s the one she wanted to do. I’ve seen her enough to know she could pull it off musically. She has an incredible instrument, but she sings from the heart. She exceeded all my hopes. You could see it in the audience reactions. They loved her doing it.”
Other standout moments included an Alicia Keys/SZA pairing on a medley that included “When I Think About You” and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” H.E.R. jazzing up “I Say a Little Prayer” and John Legend’s cover of Aretha’s cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Most roof-raising Yolanda Adams, Bebe Winans and Shirley Caesar teaming up for a tribute to Franklin’s gospel side, preceded by a lengthy film clip of Aretha singing one of those numbers, “How I Got Over,” culled from the new documentary “Amazing Grace.”
“To me, it’s all about performance,” says Ehrlich. “I’ve always felt, if something works in the house, people at home will get it. And last night worked in the house.”
While this Aretha Franklin tribute takes the place of the one Clive Davis and Doug Davis planned for New York, it doesn’t necessarily preclude an Aretha segment at this year’s Grammy Awards.
“Not at all,” says Ehrlich. “And to be honest, it would be in our interest to do one, considering this show won’t air until afterward. And it makes sense to use some of the same artists. But that show’s still a month away, which is a lifetime in Grammy world.”