Channeling Whitney, Being Shelea
Multi-talented singer-actress chats about her friend David Foster's new solo tour

By Lee Valentine Smith

This month, Grammy winning producer-musician David Foster continues his North American tour with a swing through the deep south. "An Intimate Evening with David Foster - Hitman Tour" continues his evolution as a solo performer with a career-spanning evening of music.

Peppered with often-humorous stories behind some of the biggest hits and inspirations of his career, the event touches on music made famous by Celine Dion ("Because You Loved Me") Whitney Houston, Earth Wind and Fire, Josh Groban ("You Raised Me Up"), Chicago, Natalie Cole and more.

On select dates, Foster's wife, singer-actress Katharine McPhee will perform. She will not perform in Atlanta due to previous commitments. But his able ensemble includes singer-actress Shelea, Pia Toscano and Fernando Varela as they revisit the pivotal moments of Foster's life in music. He calls this era a new chapter of his already impressive career with several new live theater projects currently in the works.

During a break in the tour Shelea - a new protege of legendary producer Quincy Jones and a former viral sensation for her renditions of Whitney Houston's best songs - called in to discuss the show and her incredible connection to Foster's legendary friend. After the tour, Shelea will be seen on April 11 as gospel singer Dorinda Clark in Lifetime's new biopic "The Clark Sisters: The First Ladies Of Gospel," produced by Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliott.

The show at Symphony Hall with David Foster is a more intimate presentation than his previous tour.

It is. It's really a fun evening of the music and stories of the people he's been associated with from throughout his career. It's his first time really touring as a solo artist. It's a career-spanning evening, so he starts by talking about writing for Earth, Wind and Fire because that was such a defining moment of his career. Maurice White is really who taught him how to be a producer and gave him a perspective on music. So he really goes down memory lane and talks about a lot of those special moments. He's brining Pia Toscano, Fernando Varela, Katherine McPhee and myself along on some of the dates to interpret the songs.

Katherine won't be at the Atlanta show due to some sort of scheduling issue, correct?

Yes, she landed the lead in a new Netflix series so she had to step out of some of the shows.

Tell us a bit about your contribution to the show.

He's tapped me to do the Whitney Houston stuff, so we'll be doing a medley of "The Bodyguard" material. Then we'll do some of the Chaka Khan material. We'll be revisiting some of the more soulful artists of his career.

And who better to do the Whitney songs than you?

It's always an honor, truly.

You've been associated with her work on various platforms for quite some time now.

I've had a bittersweet connection to her music, since she first passed. I did a tribute to her that went semi-viral. Here I was, getting a lot of attention for singing her songs and I remember thinking, 'You know I would give it all up if she were still here with us.' But after a while, her dancers, her singers, her musicians, her best friend and even some family members, all reached out to me. Some said they said were finally able to cry for the first time after hearing my versions. But I think the most meaningful one of all is when her daughter Bobbi Kristina found me. She sent me a beautiful message. "When I hear you sing, I feel my mother's spirit is still with me. If my mom was here, she would be so proud of you." That really made it all worthwhile for me.

An incredible compliment.

That was the moment I knew why I did the tribute. It wasn't to say, 'Oh look, I can sing Whitney Houston songs too.' That really wasn't the point. It certainly wasn't why I was moved to do the songs in the first place. It was really an expression from the heart because this woman gave so much to me. It was just my way of showing how much I loved her work. The way it resonated made me feel a lot better about carrying on her music.

In a way, you are channeling the legacy.

I really do feel that I am, yes. I'm singing her songs but in them you can also hear Shelea. I'm not lost in them, but I feel a deep connection to them.

You and David have been working together for a few years now. He's even on your PBS special.

He is and I first met him through Stevie Wonder some years back. Stevie and David were working on a project and we had an instant connection but I didn't know how far it would be going in that moment. He does a lot of charity work and I'd go along and sing and he'd include me in his work and recordings. Then, when it came time for me to do my PBS special, he really wanted to be a part of it. I'm so grateful for the way we've been able to create live music together but really just our friendship itself is incredible.

You've worked with David Foster, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones and so many more legendary and often larger-than-life personalities. At what point do they become collaborators and peers instead of just untouchable icons?

They are all so open and encouraging for me as a musician. I always say about David, he listens to my ideas and he doesn't 'David Foster me,' you know what I mean? Because I know that I'm on an even playing field. There's not a hierarchy with them. I remember my dad telling me that he always wanted me to grow up knowing that I'm not better than anyone. But in that same breath, he's say, 'But no one is better than you.' So when I meet people like Stevie or David, I do feel like I'm their peer because I know what I bring to the table musically.

David Foster (with Shelea and Friends) performs at Symphony Hall at 8 p.m. on Friday, March 20. For more information, please visit atlantasymphony.org.

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