Jennifer Hudson hit The Late Show on Thursday night (August 12) to give host Stephen Colbert and house band leader Jon Batiste an Aretha Franklin singing clinic while revealing what the soul icon sang to her in their final conversation. JHud, who was hand-picked by Franklin to star in the new biopic Respect, also stuck around to burn down the stage with her fiery performance of the title track from the movie.
“She told me what she had eaten,” Hudson laughed when Colbert asked what the last conversation she had with Franklin was like after their 10-year friendship. “And then she sang to me on that call.” Though she could only remember that it was a song by the Isley Brothers, Hudson said the chat that took place just one week before the Queen of Soul’s death in August 2018 at age 76.
“I feel as though I was one of the last people to hear from her,” Hudson said.
Hudson — who recently traveled to Detroit to meet with members of Franklin’s family at the singer’s childhood home — said one of the other things she learned while prepping for the film was how involved Aretha was with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. “It was such a beautiful moment because we reminisced on our favorite moments of hers and her songs,” she said of the visit that included some of Franklin’s grandchildren.
Hudson also explained that she learned to play piano for the role because she wanted to emulate Franklin’s skills on the keys, even as Colbert wondered how she could pull it off with her long, pointy, diamond-encrusted fingernails. “It was the most unnatural part to me so I said I had to start with the piano first,” she explained to Colbert, noting that she had a bit of musical training in high school but always focused on singing rather than playing.
“Unfortunately sometimes the nails get caught in between the keys so if you hear a wrong note thats’ the nail,” she said. And though Hudson never got to perform with her hero, the Oscar-winning singer has paid tribute to her many times and served as Aretha’s opening act right after she was eliminated from American Idol in 2004 in seventh place.
Hudson said her on-set dialect coach explained that Franklin sang from the top of her head while JHud was told she sings from “her feet.” So, instead of talking about it, she slid onto Batiste’s piano bench and demonstrated Franklin’s head notes and her silky foot notes on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” with Colbert and Batiste serving as her back-up singers.
Dressed in a glittering, feather bedecked stage gown, Hudson returned later in the show to prove why she was the only choice for the gig with a fuego run through Franklin’s signature Grammy-winning Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 1967 remake of the Otis Redding song “Respect,” backed by a full band with a four-piece horn section and quartet of back-up singers.
Watch Hudson sing “Respect” and talk about her friendship with Franklin below.