March is Women’s History Month, so it’s fitting that the Music Hall spotlight shines on Aretha Franklin, arguably the best female singer of all time. The Cincinnati Pops begin the festivities with Respect: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin March 18–20, followed by Cynthia Erivo’s appearance on March 29. Erivo received an Emmy nomination for her lead role in last year’s National Geographic miniseries Genius: Aretha, and she’ll join the orchestra to perform songs that helped her earn Grammy and Tony awards.
John Morris Russell, who will conduct both shows, worked with producer and arranger Scott Coulter on the Respect program, which features Tamika Lawrence, CoCo Smith, and Blaine Krauss singing highlights from Franklin’s six-decade career. It will be Russell’s second time with the Respect baton after leading the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Pops through the program in 2019.
“It’s tough when you’re trying to make a tribute to an incredible singer,” Russell says. “How are you going to do it with one person singing? So we decided to loosen it a bit and talk about her influence on the art, her influence on American music-making, and her style that brought together gospel, R&B, soul, and rock and roll. These singers have expertise in different areas to cover not just Aretha’s life story and not just her musical style, but also the influence she had on music around the world.”
Franklin, who died in 2018 at age 76, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the second year of ceremonies for the Cleveland museum; she was the only woman in the first two classes. She was voted No. 1 in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Singers in 2008, and her version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” moved into the top spot of the magazine’s latest version of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list in 2021.
Coulter certainly admires Franklin’s talent, but he believes her tortuous journey is even more noteworthy, although not a large portion of the program. The obstacles she overcame show a sheer will that isn’t just uncommon but almost unheard of.
“Her father was a minister, and she got pregnant at age 12,” says the UC College-Conservatory of Music grad (singer Krauss also has a CCM degree). “Yet she became one of the greatest performers of all time. In addition, she fought for civil rights and fought for gay rights. She was making music and putting her stamp on things right up until the end. Looking at her songs is one thing, but looking at her life is important as well. She overcame every obstacle that was thrown her way and earned respect. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true.”
Russell enjoys recalling Franklin’s concert with the Pops at Riverbend in 2016. “After the show, I kinda snuck into her dressing room to say hi,” he says. “I’m thinking about what I wanted to say, something like, You’re the greatest, blah blah, blah. And she’s sitting with her feet up on a coffee table, sipping a Vernors [ginger ale]. And I just blurt out, ‘Vernors, Vernors,’ thinking, Duh, of course, you’re from Detroit [home of the drink]. She looks at me and says, ‘I have a fantastic ham glaze recipe that uses Vernors. Take a can of Vernors, a half cup of brown sugar, and a dollop of French’s [mustard], and put some maraschino cherry juice in there. That’s Aretha’s Glaze.’ Ever since then, when we cook a ham, we always put Aretha’s Glaze on it.”
Franklin might be the brightest light in Music Hall this month, but there is more star power March 25–27. Conductor Louis Langrée leads the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in a program featuring Eighth Blackbird, the Chicago-based contemporary music group. Highlights include a new Orchestral Fanfare by jazz great Wynton Marsalis and the world premiere of “Nine Mothers” by Kinds of Kings, a composer collective that advocates for underrepresented voices. The concert wraps up with the popular Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz.