WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Gospel Music Heritage Month Foundation held its 10th Annual Evolution of Gospel concert at the John F. Kennedy Center on Sept. 10th, with a soul-stirring tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
Established in 2008 to celebrate and educate people everywhere about the rich heritage of gospel music through word and song, the event told the story of gospel through narration and song, spotlighting performances by some of the most dynamic names in music. Included were Grammy Award winners Jennifer Holliday, Regina Belle and Yolanda Adams; gospel singer Kathy Taylor; Patrick Lundy and the Ministers of Music, featuring Gaye Arbuckle; and the Ebenezer AME Choir, featuring Samantha McElhaney John.
Gospel music legend and TV show host, Dr. Bobby Jones, kicked off the night by proclaiming that the concert would celebrate Franklin’s life with dignity and the spirit of the Lord, but as the infectious joy raised in the hall, Jones proclaimed, “We’re gonna have church in here!”
Carl Davis, gospel music advocate and foundation chairman, introduced Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), who with Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), led the passing of a resolution in both chambers in 2008 declaring September as “Gospel Music Heritage Month.” In each year since its establishment, both local and global celebrations have been held to educate and entertain diverse audiences with the rich history and legacy of gospel music.
Lee noted that the event had been planned for a year, but with the recent passing of Franklin, the program line up was quickly changed to honor the life of the celebrated singer.
Franklin, who was buried on Aug. 31 after a day-long funeral tribute, would have loved the event, which included a taped tribute by Neil Portnow from the Recording Academy and video footage from some of Franklin’s numerous Grammy Award acceptance moments, Lee said.
Patrick Lundy and The Ministers of Music, featuring Gaye Arbuckle set the tone for the evening with the toe-tapping “Climb Higher Mountains,” followed by a medley by Holliday featuring “Precious Lord” and “You’ve Got a Friend.” Holliday’s soulful style showcased her powerful vocal range that alternated between contralto and soprano, as she passionately delivered the moving lyrics.
Gospel singer and pianist Richard Smallwood spoke on “The History of Gospel Music” and Franklin’s connection to the genre, citing her influence by her father Rev. C.L. Franklin, a noted gospel singer and orator, who was grooming his daughter for a successful career at age 12.
Gospel singer Kathy Taylor followed with emotionally charged performances of “Amazing Grace” and “Mary Don’t You Weep,” that had many audience members standing and praising God.
Respected gospel music conductor and contemporary songwriter V. Michael McKay discussed Franklin’s gospel songs and her connection to secular roots, followed by a dynamic performance of “People Get Ready” by singer Regina Belle. Belle noted that so many had been influenced by Aretha “as she got us ready for church, went with us to our picnics, and was there when we fell in love.”
Afterwards, Holliday returned to give a blistering rendition of “Respect,” one of Franklin’s most recognized songs, which had the audience on its feet.
During the evening, Lee presented the foundation’s Legacy Award to two of Franklin’s family members, her son Kecalf and granddaughter Victoria.
Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter discussed how Franklin’s music touched the world, noting that she had been named the youngest Kennedy Center Honors nominee at age 52. Rutter was followed by singer Yolanda Adams who took to the stage with emotional renditions of “How I Got Over” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that nearly shook the Kennedy Center roof.
The Ebenezer AME Choir, conducted by “Sunday’s Best” finalist Clifton Ross, closed the evening with a powerful version of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” its spirited performance, drawing thunderous applause as the audience held hands and united in song. It was a fitting end for a legendary singer, civil rights activist and artist who broke cultural, religious and geographical boundaries, while garnering the respect of musicians and music lovers around the world.