By Donald Liebenson
Kennedy Holmes was fortunate to have Jennifer Hudson as her coach on season 15 of The Voice. Holmes, a mere 13 years old when she galvanized all four coaches during the blind audition, emerged as the season’s front-runner (“I think she could win,” Blake Shelton was heard whispering to Hudson), only to finish fourth in the final voting. Her placement was sudden, shocking, and scandalous (and that’s only the s’s).
For Hudson, it must have felt like déjà vu—and this is where her unique perspective was invaluable to Holmes. This year marks the 15th anniversary of Hudson’s own sudden elimination from American Idol, a turn of events so wholly unexpected that Elton John took to social media to decry the result.
The advice she offered to Holmes? “As long as you have your talent, you always win,” Hudson shared in a phone interview with Ravinia. “That’s what I told myself when I was eliminated. I said [to her], ‘Let me be an example for you.’ It’s not always about winning; it’s about taking your opportunities. Everything leads to the next. I wanted to do American Idol for the experience, and look at the things I’ve gotten to do since.”
Just a few career highlights: First she rocked the boat as a Disney cruise ship performer, thereby setting a course for music superstardom. Then, following American Idol, she made an assured transition to feature films, earning an Academy Award for her screen debut in the plum role of Effie in the musical Dreamgirls. In 2008, she sang the National Anthem at the ceremony during which Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president, and four years later she serenaded the First Couple with Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at his second inauguration. In 2009, she earned a Grammy Award for her self-titled first album.
In just the years since her Ravinia debut in 2011—“One of my favorite experiences performing onstage,” she said—she became a coach/mentor on the American and British incarnations of The Voice and has landed two hotly anticipated projects, an Aretha Franklin biopic (“I’m literally sitting at the piano right now practicing for the role,” she quipped) and the screen adaptation of Cats in which she will portray Grizabella. The film is scheduled for release this December.
Move over, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” Hudson’s signature Dreamgirls showstopper; “Memory” now looks to be a permanent part of Hudson’s repertoire. “I am so blessed to be associated with these legendary classic [Broadway] songs,” she said. “I love ‘Memory’; that’s probably what led me to perform with orchestras, which is my favorite way to perform.” The native Chicagoan may have a new favorite Ravinia experience after her July 14 return to the festival, as she is set to make her debut with her hometown’s—and the nation’s—premier ensemble, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as the headliner of the annual Gala Benefit Evening at Ravinia hosted by its Women’s Board.
The Aretha biopic brings Hudson full circle. She auditioned for American Idol singing Franklin’s “Share Your Love with Me.” In the ultimate honor, the Queen of Soul did share her love, selecting Hudson to portray her in the film before her death last year. (Hudson sang in tribute at her funeral.) She still cannot fully process this. After Dreamgirls, she said, she was asked constantly what she could do to top winning an Oscar on her first film in a role that huge. In terms of dream projects and challenging roles, she would respond that the thing that would come closest would be to play Aretha Franklin. “For that to be actually happening,” she began; overwhelmed, she couldn’t finish the sentence.
The two spoke many times over the decade, Hudson said—“weekly, actually.” They first met following Hudson’s Dreamgirls triumph, when it was floated that Hudson should one day portray Franklin onscreen. Hudson recalled with a laugh, “She said, ‘You’re going to win an Oscar for playing me, right?’ I said that I would do my best. And she said, ‘Are you shy?’ I said, ‘I am when I’m talking to Aretha Franklin.’ ”
Hudson’s own life story would make for a truly inspirational biopic. But who else could play her? “Maybe one day that story will be told,” she said. “I haven’t had a chance to think about it.”
But when reflecting on her career and her lifelong passion for singing, she offers what would be a good title: “There was no Plan B.” “I come from a host of singers,” she continued. “I was pretty much born into it. My grandmother was the soloist in church choirs. She always said she never wanted to be famous because you had to sing when you didn’t feel like it. I told her, ‘Sometimes, Grandma, I can appreciate that.’ ”
Hudson grew up in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Her mother, a single parent, raised Jennifer, sister Julia, and brother Jason. “My grandmother made it a point to make us all sing,” Hudson said. “I was serious about it; my brother and my sister weren’t as into music as I was. We pretty much grew up listening to music in church. We weren’t allowed to listen to secular music. I heard regular music through our neighbors and from when my grandfather took us out into the streets. And I watched Soul Train on television. I put a blanket on the floor and that would be my stage. I would dance in front of the TV and sing along with a brush as my microphone. To this day, I listen to what is being played in stores and restaurants because I love all music; I am always listening.”
And yet, Hudson’s first solo, performed in church at the age of 7, did not go well, she remembered. “I forgot the words; the congregation had to help me out.”
A family event helped Hudson conquer her stage fright and gave her the confidence to perform. “It was my great-grandmother’s 90th birthday in Mississippi,” she recalled. “All the kids could do whatever they wanted in tribute to her. I wanted to sing. Everybody was laughing because they had no idea I could sing. By the time I finished, the same people laughing at me stood up. That’s when I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
Hudson has made the most of all her opportunities, starting with her cruise ship stint. Watching her American Idol audition (it’s available on YouTube), one is struck by judge Randy Jackson’s condescending crack about expecting “something better than a cruise ship performance.” “That surprised me too,” Hudson said. “I’m proud of everything I do, and it wasn’t until then that everything started to change and happen for me. I recommend it for any performer, especially when you’re young. Randy was wrong, but he knows that now.”
Her momentous Idol audition was held at the Kodak (now the Dolby) Theater, where she would later return as an Academy Award nominee and later, as an Oscar ceremony performer. Her most vivid Oscar memory: “When my category came up, all I could hear was my mother’s voice in my head saying, ‘You’re a winner just getting this far.’ When [presenter] George Clooney said my name, I didn’t move. I thought it was all in my head and that nobody heard my name but me.” Hudson is quick to add that she received another superlative that night—she was named “Worst Dressed.”
But of all her accolades, the one that means more to her than Academy Award winner and Grammy winner is one bestowed on her in 2007 by her Chicago school alma mater: The Pride of Dunbar Vocational Career Academy. “When you can come back home and share your victories and inspire others and make a difference, that gives me chills,” she said.
Hudson still calls Chicago home. “I always say Chicago allows my feet to touch the ground,” she explained. “Chicago people allow me to be Jennifer from the South Side. If I wanted to be in front of lights and cameras every time I stepped out of the house, I would live in Los Angeles or New York. I love the normalness of living in Chicago. I do what I do, but when I come home, I want to be a Chicagoan.”
She also believes in giving back. In 2008, she established with her sister the Julian D. King Foundation in honor of her then 7-year-old nephew who was murdered along with her mother and brother. Each year, the foundation gives free school supplies and holiday gifts to schoolchildren in need around the city.
Hudson has passed on these and other lessons as a coach and mentor on The Voice, a role in which she will continue to serve on the UK edition of the show later this year. “That is the show’s most special gift,” she noted, “the opportunity to have mentors. That’s so valuable.”
Does she wish she had that advantage when she was just starting out? “It would have been easier to have someone to take me by the hand and guide me and instruct me,” she said. “But I can’t complain about my outcome.” ▪
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based entertainment writer. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, and on RogerEbert.com. The first Ravinia concert he attended without his parents was Procol Harum in 1970.