It’s seven hours before a star-studded tribute to the Queen of Soul and the evening’s host, Tyler Perry, is trying to fine-tune his opening monologue. “I was raised on Aretha Franklin, my mother would always play….” Perry trails off. “I’m having a little trouble saying this.” He calls on the evening’s ringleader, longtime Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich, for guidance: “I want you to be happy Ken. Tell me what I need to do.”
Ehrlich is sitting at a makeshift production table facing the stage. His primary focus: keeping things on schedule and making any last-minute modifications needed prior to showtime. (Perry didn’t require much of the latter; he nailed his intro on the next take.) Rehearsals have been going on for almost a week now, with artists shuffling in and out of the cavernous Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
“It’s the last chance we have to do anything,” Ehrlich tells EW, about what the final preparations for an event like Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul (airing this Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on CBS) look like. “By then, if the show’s not in good shape then there’s not a whole lot you can do.”
The legacy of Franklin, who died last August at the age of 76, and her booming, mezzo-soprano loom large over popular music, having inspired multiple generations of artists. That influence is fully reflected in the tribute’s powerhouse slate: Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, SZA, Janelle Monáe, H.E.R., Brandi Carlile, Alessia Cara, Kelly Clarkson, Celine Dion, and more, all set to perform some of the Queen’s biggest hits, including “Respect,” “Think,” and “Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel).” Also making appearances are Franklin’s close collaborators and friends, Smokey Robinson and Clive Davis. (“I know how important this [show] was to [Clive],” says Ehrlich. “And it gave us a little more incentive to do something special because of [his] relationship with Aretha.”)
Perry, too, had a personal relationship with Franklin. “I got a call from her one day saying, ‘This is Aretha Franklin.’ I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,'” recalls Perry. “She loved [my character] Madea…I did not know what a huge fan she was until she called and just told me. That’s the kind of generous person that she was. She would call you up and encourage you.”
While picking a lineup for a show like this can be tricky, Ehrlich says they lucked out, getting “75 to 80 percent” of their original wish list. Another challenge: figuring out which song will be covered by which artist. Though some acts come in committed to playing a favorite single, others are open to suggestions. “Jennifer Hudson pretty much came ready-made,” says Ehrlich. “Kelly Clarkson knew [“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)”], and loved that song. Celine, I gave her four or five songs to pick from, and she just really wanted to do ‘A Change is Gonna Come.’”
As rehearsals come to a close, Ehrlich and the rest of the lineup retreat backstage. Once the show begins, the producer usually takes his place just off-stage — right after doing one last tour of the dressing rooms, where he checks in on artists, making sure everybody’s happy and addressing any pressing problems. But everyone is in good spirits, and adjustments are minimal. When you’re honoring a legend, things sometimes just fall into place.
As Ehrlich tells EW after the performance, “The memory of Aretha hung over the show in a very big way.”
Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul airs this Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.