Icon, activist, natural woman. In her life, Aretha Louise Franklin played many roles. But the gospel singer from Detroit, who went from singing praise at her father’s Baptist church to churning out hits like “Respect,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Never Loved a Man” and more, was known in this country and around the world as the Queen of Soul.
And when Strathmore wanted to pay tribute to the queen, whose decades-long work in the civil rights and women’s rights movements proved to be as much of a legacy as her dozens of studio albums, they chose three young women to sing her songs and honor her memory at AMP. Ines Nassara, 27, who will perform Franklin’s hit songs (as well as a few lesser-known gems) with Crystal Freeman and Shayna Blass, is a Germantown native and former Strathmore Artist in Residence (AIR). She’ll be coming back to Montgomery County from Brooklyn to shake up the stage at AMP by Strathmore.
“Aretha was a very vivacious, fun-centric woman, and I want to put that in,” gushed Nassara. “It will be a really fun show, celebrating her life.”
Nassara’s own life was pretty typical, except for one thing: she could sing. “My family says I started sing when I was 4,” she recalled. “I was always singing around the house. I think in my head I sounded just like Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey.” She laughed, adding that after fourth grade, she traded the flute for a spot in the choir.
“I was definitely rooted in choral music,” said Nassara, who attended Northwest High School, where she discovered musical theater. “I had one voice teacher, Bonnie Kunkel, who changed my life and helped me get into college.”
She went to Towson University, performing at jazz gigs with members of Kunkel’s family and earning a bachelor of science degree in sociology/anthropology with a vocal jazz performance minor.
“While I was in college, I’d take spring semesters off and do musicals,” she explained. “Signature Theatre in Arlington, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.”
Her performance as Ronny in “Hair” at the Keegan Theatre got Nassara nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical, and two years ago, she took part in Strathmore’s AIR program.
“I did the musical theater portion, but I’m also a songwriter,” she explained. “I actually premiered my band, Heroine, in my final week of residency. Ever since then we’ve been performing, in New York City and in Maryland.”
For Nassara, being an Artist in Residence at Strathmore was life-changing. “It was really awesome,” she said, noting that true friendships and lasting professional affiliations bloomed because of the program, which helps emerging artists adapt to the challenges of a professional performance career. “The program gave me a lot of resources I wasn’t thinking about at the time. I was thinking about gigging and singing and making money to eat and survive — not necessarily about taxes, publishing, marketing.”
The AIR program helped her organize her life as an artist and focus on the business end so that creativity — and fun — could follow. It provided her with resources and mentors to help her further her career, she said. And it made her part of the Strathmore family, which led to the AMP stage and this opportunity to channel the Queen of Soul with Freeman, Blass and a band featuring Deonte Haggerty-Willis on guitar, Andrew Musselman on bass, Joey Antico on drums and musical director Roderick Demmings Jr. on keys.
“No horns, just a rhythm section — full rhythm, and backup singers,” explained Nassara, noting that each performer will sing her favorites from the Aretha Franklin songbook.
“We’ll all be singing lead, but there’s no ‘one person,’” she said. “Each of us has four songs we’ll sing, and there’ll be an opener and a closer that we’ll all sing together—and if the crowd likes it, an encore!”
They’ll tie the program together through dialogue and song, telling the story of the little girl with the powerful voice who grew up to be queen. “There will be some patter and some history,” said Nassara. “Why we love a particular song, our connection to it, so the audience can understand our relationship with a song and why we picked it.”
Nassara wants the audience to be ready for a tour de force, with all their favorites and some surprises as well. “We’re doing hits!” she exclaimed. “And we are doing maybe two or three kind of unplugged, didn’t-make-some-of-the-albums that are amazing, but mostly hits like ‘Chain of Fools’ and ‘Natural Woman’ and ‘Ain’t No Way’ and ‘Respect’ and ‘Think.’ All of the major hits.”
That’s important, because on a cold January night, Nassara expects to see the audience on its feet, showing, well, “Respect.” And having a great time. “We want it to be a party,” she said. “I want to brighten people’s time. It’s cold out, I want people to warm up and be happy, forget their troubles and hear some great live music from some amazing musicians and singers.”
AMP by Strathmore presents “Respect the Queen: An Aretha Franklin Tribute” at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24 at AMP by Strathmore, 11810 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda. Tickets range from $18 to $35. Doors open 90 minutes prior to performance. Call 301-581-5100 or visit https://www.ampbystrathmore.com/live-shows/aretha-franklin-tribute.