Aretha Franklin lived a life that was as legendary as her soaring mezzo-soprano voice. One legend in particular sticks out: the night she filled in for Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammys. The famed tenor was scheduled to perform a Puccini aria as part of the 40th Grammys, but cancelled a half-hour into the broadcast. Scrambling to fill the big man’s shoes, the producers approached the Queen of Soul to see if she’d be willing to sing “Nessun Dorma.” Listening to the aria on a boombox in her dressing room, the soul singer rose to the challenge. With no rehearsal time or margin for error, she stepped out on stage at Radio City Music Hall and tore the roof off with a vocal performance so astonishingly on-point that you could imagine Puccini clapping ecstatically under the graveyard soil.
Aretha Franklin was a master at slipping with ease into other people’s shoes. She was the kind of singer who could instantly make someone else’s tune her own. Consider how she took Otis Redding’s “Respect” and turned it into the ultimate girl power anthem. Aretha knew how to inhabit other people’s songs and inject her own soul, her own wit, her own experiences into them to make them wholly her own. Combine that chameleon superpower with her earth-shaking voice and it’s no wonder that the thought of covering her work makes other sings shake in their shoes. It takes an artist with a lot of talent and faith in their skills to follow in the Queen’s footsteps.
As anyone who’s seen Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra in concert knows, talent and self-confidence are two things that Camille Sledge has in abundance. A frontwoman who dresses with style and verve, she has a commanding and energetic stage presence. Her voice, “a little raspy and unconventional” as she puts it, is perfectly suited for the band’s infectious Afrobeat sound. Weaving together strands of music that recall Fela Kuti, Tony Allen, and the Talking Heads, Sledge’s voice is the glue that holds PAO together.
While Sledge is best known locally for fronting a 16-strong ensemble, she also works on a smaller scale doing jazz repertoire work. And from her work doing jazz performances abroad in Europe, she found herself trying on the Queen of Soul’s shoes for size.
“I was doing repertoire at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival,” Sledge says. “They gave me the opportunity to sing some of the stuff I wanted. I made a list of songs that were really cool with the piano player and the festival’s musical director, and a few Aretha songs got on there. It grew from there.”
Like Franklin herself, Sledge developed a talent for learning how to cover songs that paid tribute to their original spirit while also honoring her own talents and desires as an artist. “I was trying to make those songs my own, to be Camille while embodying the spirit of Aretha Franklin.”
A veteran performer in the States, Sledge noted how different it was performing for European audiences. “In Copenhagen, I was nervous because they’re very quiet,” Sledge explains. “They listen with these intense stares and they’re not moving. It’s different in the U.S. because we’re like, ‘Yeah, throw your hands!’ Audience participation, especially with my band, Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra. We get a lot of crowd participation and loudness and like, ratchet-ness with our rowdy audience members. But in Copenhagen, I didn’t know if they even liked what I was doing until after the show.”
Her initial Aretha Franklin shows were successful enough that Sledge was able to take them on tour to places like London and Macedonia. “You give London a couple of drinks and they’re going to talk back,” Sledge says wryly, pointing out how the U.K. audiences distinguished themselves from Copenhagen jazz-heads. “And Macedonia, they like to party. It was more like playing a club than a jazz show.”
The show that Sledge has developed is a mix of Franklin’s most famous songs along with her own personal favorites. It’s a show that she’s bringing this month to downtown Phoenix’s The Nash in a stripped-down format that Sledge likens to “an Unplugged show.” Backed by The Nash’s jazz trio Geocentric, which includes PAO bandmate Joel Oroz on drums, Camille Sledge Sings Aretha: Honoring the Queen of Soul will be a night for the singer to pay tribute to one of her childhood heroes.
“Aretha was always playing in the house,” Sledge reminisces. The singer grew up surrounded by music: Her mother was in Sister Sledge, the funk group whose “We Are Family” is fated to haunt wedding playlists for all eternity.
When it came time to pick the songs for her Aretha tribute show, Sledge used more than childhood nostalgia to determine her choices. “Some of the songs are on there because they have a great story behind it,” she says. “We had to go through so much music. She has like 44 albums, so it’s really hard to narrow it down and pick the songs that would make a good set list and also craft a good portrait of her.”
To help her do justice to Franklin’s music, Sledge studied the singer’s life.
“I did a lot of research about her life,” she says. “I looked into a lot of the things that she had lived through and tried to separate the fact from the fiction. The research helped me find the emotional keys to use in the songs.”
Studying Franklin’s life, Sledge found parallels between their lives. “What stood out to me was how hard it is to be a music artist and have an actual life,” Sledge says. “To be a woman that’s working and also a mother. I’m a mother too, who’s also touring and recording and traveling and raising children. I could relate to a lot of the hardships that she had been through.”
It’s possible that Sledge stumbled onto one of the secrets that Franklin understood about how to bring other people’s work to life. You need to really feel their pain, and not just feel it, but let it work on your own emotions, to let their pain be your own for a moment.
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“I’m pregnant right now, and I’m about to have another child, so my hormones are really heightened and my emotions are really, really, really heightened for me,” Sledge says. “So if you read a story about a woman that’s gone through some real hardships and then you have to sing her songs, it’s almost hard to sing them without upsetting yourself, too.”
While Sledge says that her Nash songs will be a bit more low-key and restrained than the kind of performances she does for PAO, she admits that some vocal fireworks comes with the territory. “You can’t really do Aretha without screaming and getting crazy,” she says with a chuckle. “You have to get a little rough with the songs because they’re rough songs.”
As to whether anyone can step into Aretha’s shoes as seamlessly as she stepped into Pavarotti’s in 1998, the humble Sledge admits that it’s a daunting, possibly impossible task. “I still don’t believe that anyone can step into her shoes,” Sledge says. “The amount of passion and soul that she held in one pinky finger … it’s just hard to compare to.”
Camille Sledge Sings Aretha: Honoring The Queen of Soul. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 20 at The Nash, 110 East Roosevelt Street; 602-795-0464; thenash.org. Tickets are $21 via thenash.org.