BBC Proms 2022: Prom 47 Aretha Franklin Queen of Soul review – transcendent – Evening Standard

Singer Sheléa’s transformation into the icon Franklin was something to behold
espite her obvious artistry, the ease with which she belts out high notes, the way she dazzles with dramatic key changes, even with such starry mentors as Stevie Wonder and producer Quincy Jones supporting her career, Detroit-based singer Sheléa is largely unknown in the UK.
Which was probably just as well. Unburdened by a back story, flanked by strings, a full gospel choir and the new Jules Buckley Orchestra complete with kick-ass rhythm section, Sheléa could morph into the icon we pretended we’d come to see. The Queen of Soul. The greatest female singer of all time.
Aretha Franklin.
“I’m gonna do what I can,” said Sheléa, draped in black ostrich feathers, as Buckley conducted in waistcoat and sleeves. A master of non-classical orchestral music, the Grammy-winning Buckley has previously delivered Proms celebrating the sounds of Ibiza, grime, Charles Mingus and Nina Simone. A tribute to Franklin in her 80th anniversary year, four years after her passing, made sense.
Sheléa played piano on Dr Feelgood while Jules Buckley conducted his newly formed ensemble
But in a decades-long career packed with classics – the pulsating Think, the catchy Chain of Fools, the sock-it-to me Respect, all here – which tunes to pick posed a challenge. Buckley and Sheléa opted for the story of a Detroit preacher’s daughter with faith at her core: opener Precious Memories, a traditional gospel song recorded live for the 1972 album Amazing Grace, acknowledged her roots. Franklin’s own raucous Dr Feelgood saw Sheléa, a church girl herself, seated at the baby grand, slow-building her way into a sung blues sermon as horns hollered and the choir became her own clapping, calling congregation.
Still, it wasn’t until the second half that Sheléa really came into her (and Franklin’s) own. Returning in pink ostrich trim, to a harp intro for Curtis Mayfield’s string-laden Sparkle, the Detroiter leaned into Franklin’s technique and used her voice like an instrument, bending a note here, softening a phrase there, interrupting the melody to heighten emotion.
The funk missile Rocksteady from Young, Gifted and Black, also 1972, saw musicians including drummer Dexter Hercules in the pocket of the groove and Sheléa bringing a masterclass in vocal control, power and range. An effervescent I Knew You Were Waiting, Franklin’s 1987 duet with George Michael (repped by a Panama-wearing male chorister) had the entire upper circle swaying along before the choir led by director Vula Malinga took on Day Dreaming, a soul single given psychedelic licks on Hammond organ and celestial passages of jazz flute.
Then there was Sheléa in a glittering white pant suit (“Three costume changes too much?”) for an all-stops-out Amazing Grace that pushed further, then further still, exceeding limits just like Franklin used to. The encore, Franklin’s gospel-inspired Bridge Over Troubled Waters, felt transcendent, holy, like a Baptist riff sung in a church.
The BBC Proms 2022 run to September 10;
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