CeCe Winans, award-winning gospel artist, reflects on the late Aretha Franklin’s life and legacy and explains why anyone getting into the music industry should study the Queen of Soul.
Winans was among a select group of soul and gospel artists tapped to pay special tribute to Franklin at the 2018 American Music Awards (AMAs). Other artists paying tribute to Franklin’s gospel roots include Gladys Knight, Ledisi, Mary Mary, and Donnie McClurkin (who also discussed the gospel tribute with Faithfully Magazine). Music director, composer and producer, Rickey Minor served as consulting producer for the tribute.
In the following interview, Winans talks about working with Franklin, the impact of her iconic album “Amazing Grace,” and what she personally learned from the artist, who died from advanced pancreatic cancer at 76 on August 16, 2018. The interview was conducted via phone on October 8.
You’re participating in what the AMAs describes as a tribute to Aretha Franklin’s gospel roots. So I’m wondering, for you, how do you personally describe Franklin’s gospel sound?
Like no other. It’s everything, you know. It’s seasoned. She’s what I call a seasoned singer. You know, when you’re cooking food you want the green peppers, the onions, the salt, the pepper, the garlic…you want all those things in it, and Aretha just had it.
BeBe and I had the honor to record a song with her, “You’ve Got a Friend” [written by Carole King]. She came in and stood behind the microphone. Most singers have to warm up and do everything… She opened her mouth, and I looked at BeBe and said, “How are we in the music industry?” You know, how are we in the music industry? Because her voice was just, it was stunning, it was powerful, it was clearly a gift from heaven.
The big focus for the gospel and soul artists you’re performing with is Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” album, which I believe is her top-selling album of all time. What makes “Amazing Grace” so iconic?
First of all, again, Aretha. Aretha can sing anything and make it sound iconic, because that’s just how she was. But the songs were powerful. “Amazing Grace,” the message that touches the world and continues to touch the world… You know, gospel music does more than entertain. It passes the ears and touches the heart and it actually begins to change lives and brings life. To be able to be a part of this tribute…and they have Gladys Knight, another incredible voice that I’ve listened to for years and admired. I’m just humbled to be a part [of it].
How has Franklin inspired your own music?
Aretha inspired everybody to try and bring your best. Aretha was just… First of all, she was very comfortable being who she is. Even in doing a tribute for her, I’ve been asked, “Do you feel pressure?” And I was like, “No.” You don’t go out doing a tribute for her trying to be her. But she taught us to give everything you have and to be who you are. I think that was one of the secrets that she had—she knew who she was, she knew the gifts she had, and no matter what arena she was in or whatever song she was in, she would bring that same flavor to every song.
As you step out on that stage with that group of performers, what will likely be on your mind? How do you prepare yourself for a performance like that, when it’s not just “entertainment,” as you said, but paying tribute to someone’s life?
First of all, it’s sobering because she’s no longer with us here. We know that she’s in a better place. That’s comforting, but it’s still sad we won’t see her live again. But I will prepare with prayer because I want tomorrow night to do what this album (“Amazing Grace”) has done over the years. It has impacted lives, it has encouraged people, it touches the soul. So my prayer tomorrow night is that we would come together and represent her well, but also celebrate her in a joyous way.
If you only had a few words to describe Franklin’s legacy, particularly for the younger generation that may not be as familiar with “Amazing Grace,” what would they be?
First, I would tell all the young people to go pick it up, go find it. Go find it. Everybody, but especially those who are choosing to go into the music industry. They just don’t come any better than that. To be inspired, to become all that you’ve been called to become, you just can’t listen to a better voice. But, then to others, she was more than… As great as her voice was, when you look at her life, she was more than music. But she used her gifts to make a difference in this country and the difference in all of our lives, especially African Americans, so they should take the time to find out who Aretha really was.
The 2018 American Music Awards, billed as the world’s largest fan-voted awards show, will be hosted by actress Tracee Ellis Ross and air live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Tuesday, October 9, 2018, at 8:00 p.m. ET on ABC.