(Photo credit: Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
I admit this entry is way way overdue but the demands of a busy website (http://www.soulmusic.com/) sometimes makes blogging a more infrequent task than I'd like. So here's the bottom line: for the second year in a row, the undisputed Queen Of Soul took to the road in her famous bus and headed for California for a week's worth of shows. And what a week it was!
Now before I wax lyrical - which I am surely going to do - you should know that I've been communicating with Aretha Franklin since December of 1966...
Back then, I was a teenager working in a record store in London and our Christmas bonus was that we could call anyone in the U.S.A. Now remember, we're talking '66 when you couldn't just pick up the phone and dial an overseas number from London! No, you had to go through an operator and it cost plenty money back then! I had retrieved the number for Aretha's then-husband/manager Ted White from the bottom of a Columbia Records promotional photo and after the operator connected us, I timidly asked Mr. White if I could speak with Aretha Franklin. To this very day, I remember him calling out, 'Aretha, phone...someone calling from England!" Little did I know that a then-24 year-old Aretha had never stepped outside the continental U.S., let alone spoken with anyone in Britain! She was happy to hear from one of her English fans and quick to share that she had just signed with Atlantic Records and was preparing for her first sessions for the label. Neither she nor I had any inkling of what would follow, that she would go from being known only by a select number of music buyers to achieving international stardom and iconic status...
So, Aretha and I go back, way back - thus going to see each of her four shows (two in L.A., one in San Diego and a last night in Santa Barbara) was a rare treat. I didn' t take meticulous notes but I can say this: Aretha was in the best form I've seen her in years. She did almost everything any Franklin admirer would want to hear: on the first night, we got a stunning reading of "Ain't No Way" which really took me back to the kind of impassioned vocals that made her such an important musical figure in the '60s. We got "Until You Come Back To Me." We got "Something He Can Feel," on which she demonstrated a little sass! And, two non-Franklin items: a Latin-flavored version of Angela Bofill's classic "Angel Of The Night" (and yes, Aretha sang in Spanish!) and Bobby Darin's "Beyond The Sea," a song Aretha later revealed was one of her all-time favorites. I took my good friend, soul singer par excellence Thelma Jones with me and of course, for those who know, it was Thelma who first recorded "The House That Jack Built" which Aretha turned into a hit of her own some months later back in '68. Thelma and I were both transported back in time by Aretha's performance (which ended with a triumphant "Greatest Love Of All"): she was truly in her element, expressing herself with the kind of emotion that first had her crowned 'Queen Of Soul' back in the '60s.
The next night was, if anything, even more special. Smokey Robinson was in the audience and Aretha acknowledged his presence, noting that the two had gone to school in Detroit when she was eight and he was nine! What none of us - including the woman herself - could have expected was how moved she was at having her longtime friend right there bearing witness to what turned into an amazing performance. After a 'deep' reading of "Precious Memories" from the "Amazing Grace" album, Aretha stopped and after choosing to dedicate it to Smokey, she spontaneously began singing "Never Let Me Go," the Johnny Ace song she recorded back in '67 on my personal favorite Franklin album, "Aretha Arrives." Midway through the second verse, Aretha was overcome with emotion and began to cry. She covered her face for a few seconds before continuing with the song. It was one of the most genuine moments I have ever seen on a stage: pure unadulterated real feeling. To a standing ovation, Aretha moved to the piano to deliver a joyous "Spirit In The Dark," preceeding it with just a few words, "Sometimes," she paused, "you just get so 'full.'" Accompanying herself on keyboards one more time, we got a gorgeous "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and a fitting conclusion with "If You Believe" from 'The Wiz."
Later that evening, I got to let Aretha know how much she had moved me and she replied, "Well, I certainly didn't expect to be crying this evening." A natural woman, indeed, and when I ventured to San Diego to see her at the wonderfully intimate outdoors venue Humphreys By The Sea, it was more Franklin magic. After an excellent set by local San Diegan Earl Thomas, we were treated to a relaxed and happy set from Aretha with a particularly special moment when jazz great James Moody joined her onstage to sing his classic "Moody's Mood For Love," a song Aretha herself recorded for her "Hey Now Hey" '70s Quincy Jones-produced album. Moody invited Aretha to sing at the end of the song but for the most part, she watched in awe as the elder statesman deftly wove his way through the tune's melody, much to the delight of one and all. A one-time-only occasion that seemed to give Aretha even more fuel for turning in another great performance.
Saturday night, me, my friend Nick and Aretha's former personal publicist Barbara Shelley headed off to Santa Barbara for the final night of Aretha's week-long sojourn in Southern California. It was, apparently, her first time in the fabulously rich city (home to Oprah and other multi-millionaires) and so longtime residents who had never seen Aretha showed up in droves for the show. Once again, Aretha delivered: whether offering stomp-down versions of "Think" or "Natural Woman," she sounded better than ever and when she dedicated "Angel" to Barbara and I, I lost it! There have only been maybe one or two times in my entire career in the music biz that I've had anyone 'call me out' with such a dedication and it was simply wonderful. Now, the skeptics among you will say that this entire blog's flavor stems from that one dedication - and you're probably right! But - just for a touch of unbiased opinion - know that each of the folks I took to the Aretha shows that week (Thelma, Michael, Louis and Nick) all had the experience of fulfillment and satisfaction from seeing her onstage.
As a Franklin-o-phile from back in the day, I can say that there have been some performances over the years that were somewhat lackluster, when Aretha seemed to be 'going through the motions'. But not this week in Southern Cali. It didn't hurt that she was surrounded by some great peeps like longtime musical director H.B. Barnum, her more-than-able musician-and-artist in his own right and son Teddy and cousin Brenda providing fabulous backgrounds (and some truly high notes on "Ain't No Way"). Aretha looked good (having shed a few pounds), she sounded great and most important of all, she seemed genuinely pleased to be back on the West C9ast and happy with the audience's responses (prompting her even to take some photos of the crowds from the stage). We didn't get to spend much time together but I did get a chance to give Aretha CDs by two of her childhood musical inspirations, the late Johnny Ace and the late Big Maybelle and she was truly grateful.
And it seems that spirit of contentment she demonstrated during her week-long trip spilled over: when she returned to her home in Michigan, Aretha hosted a two-night dinner for displaced New Orleans folks currently residing in Detroit as well as providing funds for them to get necessities in a shopping spree at a local store. "There's no way I'm going to let these people be in Detroit and not show them some Detroit and Aretha hospitality with a good time and great food," she told "The Detroit News" on October 22. When all's said and done, she is after all a do-right woman and while some entertainers may come and go out of my life - woth more frequency in recent times than ever - Aretha's sho' nuff still a do-right woman with me. As I've been prone to say at least once a day since witnessing those Franklin shows, hallelujah! Can't wait to see her once again when I go to the Sam Cooke tribute in Cleveland November 5/6.
(Details at: http://www.pluggedincleveland.com/events/8752/tenth-annual-american-music-masters-ser.html) - when Aretha will be performing on two nights (in a Main Tribute and then a Gospel Tribute to the late great Sam Cooke.