Charity Lockhart has more in common with Aretha Franklin than powerful vocal ability. Both grew up singing in church and both acquired a spiritual strength that has served them well in life and the music business. In Lockhart's case, her strength and her voice have been her saving grace. Now it allows her to breathe new life into a character and the music that continues to inspire people despite Aretha's passing last year.
When Lockhart decided to recreate Aretha Franklin's iconic career that spanned six decades, who better to give the show justice than someone who's walked some of those same miles in a different pair of shoes.
"Aretha: The Queen of Soul" starring Lockhart, is dedicated to recreating Franklin's legacy and the music she delivered to the world. The show comes to the Riverside Resort for the first time Wednesday-Sunday, April 17-21, in Don's Celebrity Theatre.
In her life, Franklin, a singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist, began her career as a child, singing gospel in church in Detroit, Michigan. She went on to record countless classics, including "Respect," "Chain of Fools," "Think," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," and "I Say a Little Prayer." She earned 18 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the USA’s highest civilian honor), and earned the No. 1 spot as Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the Greatest Singers of All Time.
Lockhart's roots also are deeply planted in gospel and classical jazz, entertaining audiences since she was six years old. She easily handles genres like pop, R&B, country, rock and blues with equal finesse. Lockhart is also a recording artist who recently released a new album, "Stand Up." She, too, is a powerful vocalist, capable of handling Franklin's signature vocals with confidence and grace.
She landed the role of a young Melba Moore in the national touring company of "Still Standing," a musical based on the life of the well-known R&B performer.
The Laughlin entertainer talked with Lockhart about her life, her career and the show she brings to town. Here's her take...
Talk a little bit about your background.
I started singing, of course, when I was six years old. That's how it is with every African-American singer, right? The key is starting in the church, and that's how I started. My dad was the pastor, he just retired last year, but I grew up in the Pentecostal church. That's where all African-Americans start — we have powerful voices because we sang in a church every day, and we sang all day long and so that developed a lot of power in the lungs, and the diaphragm. After that I went to college, and studied classical music and jazz improvisation. From there I went to Wright State University, and even though I got a degree, and I was going for my doctorate, I didn't finish, because I got an opportunity to go on tour in Europe, that was my first tour. After that, it was just like, "What, I'm going to school for what...to be a teacher? No, I'm traveling and touring and performing." I didn't want to sit with kids from 9-to-5. Although I do love teaching, and I do teach. My mom was a music teacher and she had a music school in Ohio, where I'm from. And I taught with her for a while at her music school. Then I came out here to Phoenix, Arizona, about 11 years ago.
That was a pretty rough time in your life, right?
Me and my kids came out here. That was 11 years ago, and we were homeless. I didn't have anything. We lived in our car for just a few weeks, until I sang at the first club I came across. The club owner was so happy, he came back and said, "hey, can you sing again?" I said "yeah," and he gave me $50, which was good for us 'cause we were living in a car. So I came back and sang in the club again, and there was somebody else in the club who said, "hey, can you sing with my band, I need someone to sub for us the next day?" I was like, "sure," and I went to that wedding band and sang with that band for a bit; another guy in another band heard of me and it just kept going every day. I kept getting gigs until I had enough money to get that first apartment and we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Then I was touring overseas in Japan every year and then we moved into a house. It just got better and better and my singing has been my lifeline.
Talk about things happening for a reason, even if we don't understand it.
Absolutely. I never try to figure it out any more. If something goes wrong, I go, "okay, there's a reason why." I'm so chill with it now, I'm like, "well, we'll see what happens," and then sometimes you don't discover why. But a lot of times you can open up your eyes and think "well if I wasn't there, this wouldn't have happened." So I kind of let God, or life, or the universe, whatever you want to call it, I just let it guide me everyday. Just be good to people. That's what really does it, because all of that comes back around, and as long as you're good to people, the universe, God or whatever, it takes care of you, and that's what I firmly believe. So singing for people and making them happy and seeing smiles on their faces or seeing them cry with a song that brings back memories, that always gives me so much joy in doing this. It's not about being famous, I don't want to be famous, I don't want any paparazzi around or anything. As long as I'm comfortable and I'm able to take care of my family and I'm able to travel like I'm doing, and make people happy, that's just like the best life to live. I'm good.
Why a tribute to Aretha, what about her music appeals to you as both a singer and a female?
I liked her because she's super feisty and doing her show lately and learning her music, and learning about her, I realize, I've been too soft. Let me firm up a little bit, in this industry and this business, 'cause Aretha was gettin' it. I mean she was no joke, she just defined what a diva really is, you know? You have all these divas today that are not true divas. A real diva gets the work done. A real diva makes sure everything and everybody's in order — it's in a good way and people still loved her. A diva isn't one of those where everybody hates you, no, they loved Aretha, and they knew they weren't gonna bring any mess to her. But I don't understand why she wore so many furs. This show in the furs — it's hot! Oh, my God, we just did a show the other day, outside in the hot and it was hot!
But she was such a strong woman and super inspiring. As I watch her from show to show, and the live shows she did, she was different every time. I noticed how different she was — it depended on the type of audience and the crowd. So with different shows like I do sometimes it gets repetitious and you get kind of bored, but with Aretha it's fun because I can make it different every show because that's what she did. Not one show would be the same.
How much of a stretch is it to invoke the Aretha vocals?
Aretha's vocals had a mixture of gospel, and R&B, and funk — you can't really place her in a category, which is really cool. She did stuff in classical music, and of course, I went to school for classical music, so I love that. With her having such versatile music, it's challenging for me. I get bored really quickly, but the music we have in the show, I love it because it's challenging but different. It keeps it really interesting for me, which then hopefully the audience can feel different energy from different songs, and they can feel that too, so it's fun.
Talk about your approach to the character. A lot of tributes have cropped up since her passing, so what do you think sets you apart?
What sets my show apart is just the versatility of the voice. I worked very hard with classical, with jazz, with country music. I worked very hard being able to sing those things, and a lot of people just can't pull that off. You have to have lived in a church in order to get gospel music, you know? It's not one of those things that you can just go, "Oh, it's a gospel show, okay," and you get up and sing. Gospel music it's a feeling. You have to make sure the people can feel what you're singing about. It's not just singing the words without bringing those words and that experience out so people can feel that. I think that's the edge I have over a lot of the other tributes.
As you come to learn about the character what do you find most fascinating about her?
There's a few things — the furs of course, (she laughs). I just keep having to go back to that. But she wanted a certain temperature in any venue she was performing. It had to be over 80 degrees in the place, she wouldn't play if it wasn't, and I totally understand that. The vocal chords have to be nice and warmed up. It's hard to sing when it's really cold, and she wanted to give her best each and every time, and that's where the diva comes out…to give her best. And then she didn't want to "get got" either, which happens a lot in the industry. When she got paid, she didn't want a check, she wanted her money in cash. But mostly I admired her work with Dr. Martin Luther King, and civil rights. I liked the fact that you didn't really see her doing a lot of marching or things like that. Her words and her message came from all the songs that she sang — they were just so powerful and they were something that were moving just as much as the marches, the rallies and things like that. To be able to move people her way and even women's rights, for respect in reference to the way women were treated in those days. She was just super powerful. Knowing her and her character has gotten me to be a lot stronger. I'm not taking as much as I used to.
Talk about the show you're bringing to Laughlin.
Oh, my gosh, there's like 12 of us on stage. There are horns and background singers. The horn section is awesome because it makes everything so powerful. The guys are fun and exciting with their little dance movements. When we get to the "church" segment, watch out. They crack me up. This show is one I really love because it's an opportunity to bring people back together.