Carmel Mom Shares Memories of Touring With Aretha Franklin for 18 Years

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Though she wasn’t classically trained, whenever Shelly Ponder stepped inside her church, she was crafting her singing voice. 

“I loved music of all genres – gospel, blues, heavy metal, even country,” says Ponder, a Carmel resident. “Hey, country music is just storytelling with a twang!”

Her singing career started when she was just four years old, when she appeared on a television show with Inez Andrews, one of the greatest gospel singers of all time. She recorded a couple of records before she was 16 years old with choirs out of Chicago. 

She never sang professionally until one day Aretha Franklin, who, at the time, was in heavy rotation on radio stations and all over MTV, gave her a call.

“I thought it was a joke so I hung up on her,” says Ponder, who was in her 20s at the time. “Thankfully, she called back.” 

Franklin was doing a concert at the Chicago Theatre and her backup soprano had fallen ill. She had heard about Ponder’s fantastic pipes, so she invited her to audition.

“We got midway through the first song and she stopped me, told me go to the next one, and she did the same thing for all six songs,” recalls Ponder, who steeled herself for rejection but ultimately landed the gig. 

Before stepping on stage for the first time, Ponder was told not to get lost in her singing. She didn’t understand the heads-up, but it soon became clear.

“To hear Ms. Franklin sing live is one of the most captivating experiences on the planet,” Ponder explains. “It’s easy to get so enthralled with what she’s doing that you completely forget what’s happening around you.”

Thankfully Ponder remained focused, but what came next threw her for a loop. Following the show, Franklin summoned Ponder to her dressing room.

“I figured she was going to tell me that I should keep practicing, but instead she complimented my voice and invited me to join the tour,” Ponder says. “I lost my legs in shock.” 

Though she had plans to become a lawyer, she recognized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Franklin handed her an envelope with $10,000 and instructed her to buy a wardrobe. 

A few days later when Ponder showed up for the concert with a complete wardrobe and $8,000 left to spare, Franklin was flabbergasted.

When Franklin asked how she managed to get so much and spend so little, she replied, “I spent your money the way I’d spend my own.”

Ponder’s honesty and integrity endeared her to her new boss. 

“Remind me to take you shopping next time I go,” Franklin said with a chuckle. And she did.

What started out as a single performance quickly turned into a thriving career, as Ponder toured with Franklin year after year playing giant stadiums, Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. 

“She was everywhere,” says Ponder, who cherished their genuine friendship. 

When Ponder got married, Franklin gave the bride and groom an eight-piece Tiffany & Co. dinnerware set. When Ponder got pregnant Franklin was elated, and when she experienced a complicated pregnancy, Franklin assured her that her job was secure. After she gave birth to her daughter, Franklin gleefully announced the baby’s birth to a 60,000-plus crowd in Toronto and sent Ponder a flower arrangement so large that it took three men to carry it into her hospital room. She also gave Ponder a card filled with cash and a note that read, “I know you’re paying for insurance out of pocket. Get the baby whatever she needs.”

“She was protective of me and I’m grateful for that,” says Ponder, noting that Franklin’s diva reputation was not an accurate representation of who she was.

“She’d go into some place and drop $20,000 and say, ‘Don’t mention my name. I was never here. You just got a blessing from some anonymous person,’” says Ponder, who enjoyed 18 years of touring with the Queen of Soul – something she never dreamed possible.

“She was iconic to the world for her music, but she was iconic to me for other reasons,” says Ponder, who came off the road a year before Franklin passed away because she wanted to spend more time with her young daughter. Franklin completely understood Ponder’s decision. During her final performance, Franklin told the massive crowd that Ponder was the best soprano she had ever had. 

Though the touring lifestyle sounds grueling, Ponder insists that for a true performer, it’s more exhilarating than exhausting.

“For us, music is like breathing air,” explains Ponder, who flourished as an artist, singer and performer thanks to her time with Franklin. 

“I taped every single show for my own reference to make sure I was on my part,” Ponder says. “And when we were on the bus and Ms. Franklin would start randomly singing, I’d hit my recorder just to get it on tape.”

Although she’s open to the idea of singing professionally again some day, Ponder recognizes that she’s already worked with the cream of the crop. 

“It was interesting to do the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have Mick Jagger pull me aside, trembling as he asked me if I could introduce him to (Franklin),” Ponder recalls. “That type of thing happened all the time.”

Franklin passed away on August 16, 2018. Talking about her gets Ponder choked up. She’s grateful to have saved phone messages and personal home videos, but she’s still processing the reality that she can’t pick up the phone and talk to her friend and mentor. 

“My life with her was wonderful,” Ponder says. “Every gig was a blessing.”

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