How Mica Paris plans to honour Aretha Franklin at Dubai Opera gig
The British soul singer returns to Dubai for a tribute concert to the legendary singer
There is an age-old rule in Hollywood: keep it on the down-low when meeting celebrities. It’s a rule Mica Paris had to learn at the age of 19, when she found herself in the middle of a glamorous party in New York.
It was 1988. Music mogul Clive Davis had organised a soiree in an opulent penthouse, and had invited Paris; at the time the Londoner was an up-and-coming soul singer.
Paris takes up the story from here: “Listen, man, everyone was there. I turn to my left and I see Clint Eastwood, I turn to my right and there is Denzel Washington and Laurence Fishburne and from the corner of my eye, I see Goldie Hawn,” she says. “The thing is with these parties, you have to act like you are not impressed. So I had my glasses on and I was trying to look cool and like I was one of them. It was shocking, really.”
But even the biggest stars have their own heroes. Paris saw this first hand when each celebrity – Eastwood and Washington included – was ushered in, one by one, to respectfully shake the hand of a woman sitting on an elevated couch in the centre of the room. When it was Paris’s turn, she was told to follow the protocol: no small talk. Just shake the hand, give thanks and off you go.
That was the first and only time Paris met Aretha Franklin. “What I remembered about that experience was how enigmatic she was and how she was that way until the very end,” Paris recalls. “What people know about her is just how brilliant a singer and performer she is. But in her own life, she had a lot of trauma. But she hid that. It was like a wall and that was done on purpose.”
Paris will attempt to summon some of that aura when she returns to Dubai Opera on Thursday, November 14 with a show dedicated to the Queen of Soul. The performance comes after Paris sold out the venue last year with a tribute show to jazz great Ella Fitzgerald.
This time around, the subject matter is more personal. While in last year’s gig she identified with Fitzgerald’s determination, Paris says she shares more of a musical affinity with Franklin, who died last year at the age of 76. This was part of the reason Paris, incredibly, didn’t know who Franklin was at first when she shook her hand at that party. “We both grew up singing in the church and at that time secular music was not part of my repertoire,” she says. “I mean, I had heard some of her songs before, like Respect, but that was it, really. So when I saw all these people just fawning over her, I thought that she must be really important.”
Like Franklin’s, Paris’s career is rooted in gospel music. Born in London, Paris grew up singing in her grandparents’ church and began gigging as a teenager with The Spirits of Watts gospel choir. It was an experience that came with its own share of responsibilities. “My grandfather was the pastor, so that basically made us the first family of the church. Everyone looked at us as the benchmark for their life and how they’re supposed to behave in the church,” she recalls. “We were very circumspect. We couldn’t wear any clothes other than church clothes. You know – the hat on and all that.”
Despite her lack of social life, it was the invaluable musical training the church provided that propelled Paris’s career. Her powerful vocals, shaped through constant performances since the age of 8, led her to being enlisted as a backing vocalist for UK band Hollywood Beyond and ultimately, her successful 1988 solo pop album So Good.
From Franklin to Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, Paris says there is a reason some of popular music’s greatest vocalists come from a gospel music background. “I am not one to sound arrogant but I know I am a great singer because of where I came from,” she says.
“When you grow up in church you have got no PA system. You have got to project your voice. You don’t realise that you’re doing that and that you are learning. You’re just doing what you are supposed to do,” she says. “You’re out there on stage and there are 100 people looking at you and you need to make your voice fill the room. You need to sing in a way that is powerful and that is able to touch the people. You just can’t beat that kind of training.”
Another aspect Paris learnt from her gospel music roots was the art of interpretation. Anyone expecting carbon copies of Franklin’s hits, such as Natural Woman, Chain of Fools and Call Me, tomorrow night will be disappointed.
Paris says she doesn’t do covers. Instead, she will perform Franklin’s repertoire in her own imitable style, as this will serve as the most authentic type of tribute. Paris found this out during her research for the show. She recalls coming across an exchange between a young Franklin and her father – C L Franklin, a renowned pastor and gospel singer – that resonated with her deeply. “Franklin was obsessed with (soul singer) Sam Cooke and she was singing his song A Change is Going to Come when her father said ‘stop trying to be like him. Be yourself. Be Aretha’,” Paris says.
“That remains my advice to myself all day long. When you hear my voice on stage, then you will know that it is me.”
Mica Paris sings Aretha Franklin on Thursday, November 14; 8pm-11pm; from Dh150; Dubai Opera, Downtown Dubai; www.dubaiopera.com
Updated: November 12, 2019 07:07 PM