Singer and member of the original R&B/ gospel group Sounds of Blackness, Ginger Commodore already thought of Aretha Franklin as her “kindred spirit in the musical sense” when she met the legendary vocalist at a Minneapolis airport as a teenager.” I was part of the welcoming committee for her,” recalled Commodore in an interview with Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.
Commodore, who will be performing at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres on December 14 and 15, shared, “Aretha Franklin was very popular in my teen years and so I learned all of her songs. It kind of started from there.” Commodore also got plenty of encouragement from family who regularly made requests for her to sing.
“It was the Aquatennial, the summer music festival, a celebration of our city of lakes, and she was brought in to sing,” Commodore stated of her meeting Franklin. “She was just very pleasant. And she asked if I wanted to get a picture with her. I said of course, yes. And so, we posed for a picture.”
To this day Commodore has that image in her home, enlarged to over 20 inches.
After that brief meeting when she was a girl, Commodore continued to emulate Franklin, intensely admiring her singing. One of Commodore’s favorites was Franklin’s rendering of “Nessun Dorma,” an aria, or solo, from Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” “That was amazing to me because she was able to transfer her soulfulness into the classical idiom. It was absolutely fascinating.”
Commodore also saw Franklin as a role model in other ways, apart from her outsize singing talents. Even as Commodore herself chose to move stylistically away from R&B and into an R&B-inflected jazz genre, she studied the way Franklin, the indisputable Queen of Soul, carried herself and handled her career. “She just embodied so many of the things that make sense to me if you’re going to be someone that’s looked up to: be a nice person, be the best that you can be in your art, try to be as kind as possible, know what you’re doing. Those are the things that drew me to her and have molded the way I move forward.”
Those lessons have stayed with Commodore, who said she was also heavily influenced by jazz vocalist Dinah Washington and the First Lady of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, throughout her long career. She shared how she prepares herself and her band to create great performances: “I try to make sure I know what I’m doing, what I’m thinking about, and what it’s for.”
Commodore does extensive research about the music she performs. “When I go into a performance—like I’m working on my holiday show right now—I’ve done the research on lyrics and styles, and the different people that have performed the song. I’m learning lyrics and feeling what was felt when the previous people performed the songs. I try to tune in. Once I internalize that, I’m home free. That’s what makes for good performances.”
Commodore went on to have a successful career in jazz, drawing praise from the greats such as Dee Dee Bridgewater and Miles Davis.
Music is a Commodore family affair, with her husband being a drummer and both of her children working with R&B artist Stokely of Mint Condition fame. Her son Brandon is Stokley’s musical director.
In fact, her husband and daughter will join her this month at her Chanhanssen performances. “Ashley sings with me when she’s not on the road with her band. When they’re on the road, I don’t get to work with them but when they’re home, I snap them up!”
Commodore will be performing many holiday classics including” God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Oh Holy Night,” “Let It Snow,” “Santa Baby,” and “My Favorite Things.”
“It’ll be Christmas songs,” she explained. “But they won’t all be traditionally performed.” Another guest singer Mychael Rambo will be performing Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and “Christmas Time.”
She emphasizes that these holiday arrangements will not be what people normally hear. “It’s a soulful mix so it will be a different feel. I like it, and people seem to like it as well.
For more on “Christmas… With a Whole Lot of Soul Feat. Ginger Commodore,” visit chanhassendt.com/shows/soulchristmas/ for more information.