Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for Jennifer Hudson! I mean, take a moment and reflect on this woman’s amazing career trajectory: Even though a mild-mannered Hawaiian teen with a flower in her hair went further than her on American Idol in 2004, J-Hud has enjoyed the ultimate revenge.
She was the one who landed a plum role as a plucky singer in Dreamgirls and belted out a version of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” that could make Sunday churchgoers drop to their knees. That’s Hudson (initially) relegating Beyoncé to backup singer status on the big screen and winning the 2006 best supporting actress Oscar off it. And over the past decade-plus, Hudson has wowed us again by carving out an unlikely-yet-durable second act: Professional Tribute Singer.
Thanks to her soaring, never-pitchy vocals and ability to make any familiar song her own (hey, you can take the singer out of Idol…), Hudson has become the preeminent go-to artist to take the stage in times of joy and sorrow. But mostly sorrow: As if you weren’t already in tears because of a national tragedy or an untimely celebrity passing, Hudson’s presence instantly signals a jump into the cathartic emotional deep end. She’s so experienced in the trade, she even spoofed herself and her charity-singing prowess in a 2017 Adam Sandler comedy.
Particularly in [insert ominous voice] these uncertain times, we need Jennifer Hudson to be strong and in full voice and ready to unleash her superpowers at any given moment. After all, the show must go on. Here is our ranking of all 20 (!!) of J-Hud’s notable televised tribute performances, spanning over a decade and going right up until this week’s NFL draft.
20. “Earth Song” (Grammys tribute to Michael Jackson, 2010)
Of all the classic songs in Michael Jackson’s repertoire, Grammy producers chose to honor him with a singalong of this drippy ’90s ballad. Enter a random assortment of artists — Hudson, Usher, Carrie Underwood, Celine Dion and Smokey Robinson — to warble about bloodshed and weeping shores against a 3D backdrop of a Jackson mini-movie originally intended as the centerpiece of his This Is It concert. Did I lose you with Celine Dion or the weeping shores?
19. “Lean on Me” (NFL Draft, 2020)
On April 22, Hudson tried her rendition of this ’70s classic from the recently deceased Bill Withers as part of ESPN’s pre-show for the 2020 NFL Draft. Forget that the message of hope came off as somewhat conflicting during our current social-distancing era of COVID-19. (Only lean if you quarantine, people!) And, frankly, you could probably argue that a tribute ahead of a sports event that emphasizes backroom wheeling-and-dealing is a wee bit gauche. Whatever. There’s no excuse for the superfluous quartet of Zoom backup singers.
18. “I Can’t Let Go” (The 87th Annual Academy Awards, 2015)
Hudson was tapped to pull at the heartstrings during the Oscars’ perennial In Memoriam tribute. No surprise there. But she sang an original number written for season 2 of the NBC musical Smash, on which she starred at the time as a Broadway superstar. And that is completely unacceptable. Everyone knows that Season 1 of Smash was far superior!
17. “Freedom! ’90” (The Voice UK, 2017)
One week after George Michael was laid to rest in England, Hudson, along with fellow coaches Tom Jones, Gavin Rossdale and will.i.am opened the finale of The Voice UK with this lively-if-wonky version of the star’s eternal 1990 hit. Where are the lip-synching supermodels when you need them?
16. “Hallelujah” (One World: Together at Home, 2020)
Face it: This haunting Leonard Cohen classic started losing its specialness factor as soon as fifth-rate singers started covering it on reality shows. Hudson did her best under the quarantined circumstances during this marathon April 18 concert, but there’s a reason her performance didn’t merit a prime-time slot.
15. “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Super Bowl, 2009)
Honoring your country counts too!
14. “Will You Be There” (Michael Jackson Memorial, 2009)
Hudson was one of a dozen performers who participated in this public memorial. Jermaine Jackson sang a sweet version of the standard “Smile.” Mariah Carey reprised her hit cover of “I’ll Be There.” Usher couldn’t hold back his tears during “Gone Too Soon.” Hudson did that song from the whale movie.
13. “I Will Always Love You” (BET Honors, 2009)
It takes major cojones to perform the ultimate No. 1 Whitney Houston power ballad in front of one Whitney Houston. Hudson proved she was up to the challenge, even holding that note in the last chorus like a champ. Still, it was Maxwell who returned to the stage for an encore in this Houston tribute, and Hudson’s own most-iconic performance of the Dolly-via-Whitney classic was still yet to come.
12. “The Impossible Dream” (NAACP Image Awards, 2009)
Not only did Hudson take three top awards for her debut album, she tackled the big number from Broadway’s Man of La Mancha in tribute to Muhammad Ali — the recipient of the NAACP President’s Award. (The boxing legend and humanitarian, stricken with Parkinson’s disease, sat silent in a chair under images of himself while she sang.) Not bad for a night at the office.
11. “Respect” (Tina Fey: The Mark Twain Prize, 2010)
Coming in December to a theater near you (fingers crossed): Hudson as Aretha Franklin in the musical biopic, Respect. She certainly has practice belting out the Queen of Soul’s signature hits. Witness this performance at the Kennedy Center in which Tina Fey received the coveted Mark Twain Prize for comedy. It’s unclear if the two had ever met beforehand.
10. Aretha Franklin medley — BET Honors, 2014
Encore time. For the network’s Franklin tribute, Hudson barreled through snippets of “Rock Steady,” “Think,” “Respect,” “Daydreaming,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” In a stunning winter-white pants outfit to boot. Respect, indeed.
9. “Ain’t No Way” (Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul, 2019)
No shocker here: Hudson figured prominently in this homage, which took place five months after Franklin’s death. She initially opened this concert by singing “Respect” and “Think.” But it was her moving version of 1968 B-side “Ain’t No Way” that helped bring down the house.
8. “All in Love Is Fair” (Songs in the Key of Life — An All-Star Tribute, 2015)
The beloved Stevie Wonder is a regular on the tribute circuit as well, so a classy show in his honor was long overdue. On the bill along with Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Annie Lennox, Hudson stood out with this cover off Wonder’s 1973 album, Innervisions. Standing oh-so-still under the spotlight, she turned the tune of lament into an aching torch song.
7. “Simply Beautiful/A Change Is Going to Come” (Kennedy Center Honors, 2014)
Hudson delivered Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” with a mesmerizing intensity, bringing the reverend to tears, and leaving fellow honorees Meryl Streep and opera singer Jessye Norman slack-jawed. Now that is a feat.
6. “Remission” (Stand Up 2 Cancer, 2014)
Bonus points for a united Chicago front. Hudson, Lupe Fiasco and Common joined forces for cancer with a performance of their collaborative track for this charity telecast. It marked the first live performance of the aptly named hip-hop hit.
5. “I’m Here” (Kennedy Center Honors, 2010)
A weepy Oprah Winfrey clutched Stedman’s hands during this chills-inducing performance from the musical The Color Purple. And that was before the Tennessee State Choir joined in on the song’s climax. Perhaps this explains why, a year later, Winfrey was unusually forgiving when Hudson ran hours late for an appearance on her eponymous talk show.
4. “For All We Know” (NBA All-Star Game, 2020)
Introduced by NBA legend Magic Johnson, she performed an impeccable version of the Nat King Cole song at the center of the court while images of Kobe Bryant and his daughter played on a screen behind her. Somehow the basketball stars collected themselves and shot hoops for a few hours afterward.
3. “Amazing Grace” (Aretha Franklin funeral, 2018)
Chaka Khan, Fantasia and Faith Hill had already paid musical respects. Then, backed by the Aretha Franklin Orchestra and choir, Hudson closed out the eight-hour ceremony. She began her rendition of the hymn (included on Franklin’s 1972 album and concert documentary of the same name) with soft vocals and some jazzy riffs. Then she unleashed her powerful range in an electrifying performance that resulted in a standing ovation.
2. “Purple Rain” (BET Awards, 2016)
Help, I’m running out of adjectives to describe Hudson’s performances! Let’s go with transfixing and soul-stirring for this see-it-to-believe it Prince homage. Dressed in a hooded white blazer dress — clearly she was inspired by The Purple One’s outfit at the 2005 People’s Choice Awards — Hudson and her take on Prince’s 1984 smash “Purple Rain” left audiences gasping for air. The Roots and Stevie Wonder were also masters that night, but Hudson shut it down.
1. “I Will Always Love You” (The 54th Annual Grammy Awards, 2012)
These Grammys will always be remembered as the awards show that turned into a memorial for Whitney Houston, who had died just one night earlier. Producers had only hours to figure out a way to honor the icon, and they came up with a perfect solution: Sending out Jennifer Hudson for a stark rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” Palpably affected by the enormity of the intense task, the pro dug deep and dazzled with impressive execution. Houston would have been proud.