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Jennifer Hudson Brings Live Music Back to the Apollo With Stunning Aretha Franklin Tribute

Jennifer Hudson
Christopher Polk for Mastercard

Jennifer Hudson performs on stage at The Apollo Theater presented by Mastercard on Aug. 19, 2021 in New York City.

Midway through her Thursday (Aug. 19) night performance at the Apollo Theater, Jennifer Hudson gave a peek into her pre-show thought process. "I said to myself, 'I wonder what it was like when Mariah [Carey] played the Apollo,'" Hudson mused as she walked across the iconic Harlem venue's stage in a billowing, vibrant pink dress. "'I wonder what it was like when Aretha Franklin played the Apollo.' Then I said to myself, 'Wait a minute Jennifer—it's your turn.'"

Much like when she first opened her mouth on American Idol 17 years ago, Hudson more than made good on the opportunity in front of her, claiming her rightful place as an heir to the Apollo stage with a masterful show that spanned her own music, the songs of Aretha Franklin (whom she plays in the newly released biopic Respect), American Songbook Standards and even opera. It was the second night Hudson appeared at the Apollo in partnership with Mastercard to celebrate Black Business Month—on Wednesday (Aug. 18), she stopped by to help honor Black women business owners as part of the company's Strivers Initiative—but it marked the first live audience performance in the Apollo since the pandemic shuttered it in March 2020 (attendees were required to show proof of vaccination and wear masks throughout the show).

With Respect out in theaters now, the Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe winner naturally paid homage to Franklin throughout the night. "Ms. Franklin sent me back to music school," Hudson told the enthusiastic crowd. And while flashy, punchy covers of "Respect" and "Think" got hands clapping and phones in the air, the most musically impressive and emotionally meaningful moments of the night came when J. Hud demonstrated that when she was talking about school, she didn't mean Aretha 101: She's got a PhD in Franklinology.

During an emotive "This Bitter Earth," which Franklin sang on her pre-breakthrough 1964 LP Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, Hudson demonstrated the breadth of her knowledge by singing it right down to the detail of Aretha's wordless harmonizing at the end of the song. And she let us know, too, quipping, "Well, that's what Aretha did!" mid-song before returning to the soulful money note. She even took a turn at the piano for a bit of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," explaining she felt it was "crucial" to learn the instrument for her role in Respect, though with one caveat: "Aretha played, I peck. If you don't know what that means you're about to find out."

The real showstopper (literally, as it was the encore song) came via her homage to Franklin's Grammy-saving 1998 rendition of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma." For who haven't heard the story a million times, Franklin famously nailed the opera classic at the 1998 Grammys with only 20 minutes notice after Luciano Pavarotti was unable to perform as scheduled. Changing into a gold-sequined dress for her take on the Turandot aria, Hudson's vocal expertise, elegance and dynamism had the audience—who had already given her a standing ovation—in awe.

Hudson may have thought about stepping into the shoes of her vocal idols before playing the Apollo on Thursday, but it's safe to say that many years from now, a budding talent about to take the stage at the historic Harlem theater will say to themselves, "I wonder what it was like when Jennifer Hudson played the Apollo." Everyone in attendance last night, of course, knows the answer: ain't no way it could've been better.

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