Londoners react to the death of Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul

Paula Duhatschek · CBC News

Opening for Aretha Franklin ‘was like a blur’ to Denise Pelley, a London-based singer who was chosen to warm up the crowd during the Franklin’s 2003 performance at the John Labatt Centre, now Budweiser Gardens.

Pelley, who had only about a week to prepare for the gig, recalls playing a 20-minute set with just a pianist as accompaniment. The duo played a few Gladys Knight tunes—but didn’t dare touch anything in the Queen of Soul’s canon.

“We dared not do any other Aretha songs. I chose other songs to do, because she was going to be there to do her songs,” Pelley said.

What isn’t a blur to Pelley was the opportunity to meet Franklin one-on-one in her dressing room.

“I’ll remember that forever,” she said.

“She seemed very warm and accepting, and appreciative that she was meeting me just as I was much more appreciative that I was meeting her.”

Pelley is among the Londoners mourning the loss of Franklin, who died Thursday of advanced pancreatic cancer at age 76.

As a young teenager at the beginning of her own musical career, Pelley recalls being struck by Franklin’s ability to take a song and make it her own—something that Pelley says she tries to do with her own music.

“She always gave it the Aretha spin, which just took the songs to a whole other level,” Pelley said, pointing to tunes like Carole King’s Natural Woman, or Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.

“No one ever wants to sound like Aretha—you can’t do it—but you can learn from how she did her songs.”