Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018

Aretha Franklin performing in Dallas. 2007 photo by Ryan Arrowsmith via Wikipedia.

Aretha Franklin has died at the age of 76. This is an unimaginable loss. She was one of the great musicians of the post-World War II era, on a par with Miles Davis, Elvis, John Lennon, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Bob Dylan. Two years ago I had the privilege of attending an Aretha concert at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. I’m recycling it today.

Aug. 22, 2016 — I had thought Friday night’s Aretha Franklin concert at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion would strictly be one for the bucket list. She may be one of history’s great singers (“Queen of Soul” hardly does her justice), but she’s also 74 and supposedly in shaky health. So Barbara and I were stunned to see her perform for nearly two hours, with her voice as strong as it was in her prime. She put on a thrilling show, backed by a 20-piece-plus orchestra. It was a performance for the ages.

I won’t attempt a review of the entire concert, but I do want to describe something that elevated her performance into something transcendent. Sitting at the piano, she played an extended solo during the opening of “Bridge over Troubled Water.” By extended, I mean she did two long verses. She’s really good. I thought she might be resting her voice. Then she sang it — wonderfully, of course. And, finally, she segued into a some testifying about her health crisis of a few years ago, and thanking God that when she returned to the hospital whatever the doctors had seen before was gone. (I can’t possibly do this justice—I’m just trying to give you some sense of it. You may remember that, for a time, Franklin was rumored to have pancreatic cancer, something she denied in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone.)

At the end, overwhelmed, she started crying. She got up, walked over to a box of tissues, and for several minutes tried to compose herself while the orchestra continued to play. Then, incongruously, she turned to the crowd and said, “Are you all enjoying yourselves?” (That might not be word for word, as I wasn’t taking notes.) She launched into “Freeway of Love,” perhaps her most trivial hit—and crossed up the audience again, as the song eventually morphed into a chant of “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”

Yes, she closed with “Respect.” Who would have guessed that that wouldn’t be a high point? What had come earlier was unforgettable and transformative.

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