At age 72, Aretha Franklin has been entertaining crowds with her prodigious musical talents for the past 65 years. There were certain points during her spellbinding show last night at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre when you got the feeling the stage is probably still the most comfortable place for her.
Aretha’s show came just a week after the release of a new biography by David Ritz called Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin that reveals incredibly personal and embarrassing stories about the notoriously private lady. Stories such as her addictions to sex and fried chicken, and the sexual orgies her legendary father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, used to have in his Detroit church—wild nights of gay and straight sex that Ray Charles said were even too wild for him.
But if Aretha was disturbed by the public probing into her private life, she didn’t let it show. She was masterful in her command of the stage, her audience and a selection of the songs that she made into American classics—in addition to singing a few by other artists, including her new cover of the Adele song “Rolling in the Deep” and a surprising rendition of Keyshia Cole’s “I Remember.” While recent years have seen preternaturally gifted singers like the late Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey let their voices whither and shrink, Aretha still can make you shake your head in wonderment every time she opens her mouth and drenches you with the richness of her instrument.
Before she came out on stage, the announcer appropriately established the gravitas of the moment, reminding us of her 19 Grammy Awards, her selection into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the first woman selected) and, most powerfully, that Rolling Stone magazine named her “the greatest singer of all time.” In other words you should feel honored, lucky, grateful to be in this special place. And we were, all of us who had waited months for this audience with the Queen of Soul. Lesser singers might shrink from such pronouncements, but you get the sense that Aretha feeds from them, needs them to come out and demonstrate its truth every single time.
We hadn’t even seen her yet before we got the first “Aretha Moment.” Those are the precious instances during the show when you witness something that only happens at an Aretha Franklin performance, something she does or says that demonstrates rules were only created for her to break them, that she is completely comfortable doing whatever the hell she wants—and there is not a person anywhere on the planet who can tell her “No.”
A well-dressed Black man walked out on stage holding what was unmistakably a woman’s purse, and he carefully placed it on the stage next to the piano. It was a thrilling, fun little moment—Aretha won’t sing without her purse nearby!
Moments later she followed her purse, dressed in a lovely, sparkly white gown—and wearing a brown and beige fur. She gingerly draped her fur over the piano, took the microphone—and began to blast us to the heavens.
It was a scintillating trip through much of the history of Black music, one of the most powerful gifts African Americans have given the world. She took us through a gut-wrenching rendition of back-country blues, complete with a B.B. King-like solo by her guitar player.
She took us to church, of course, working her way through a gospel song with all the inflections and rousing improvisations she’s been doing since she was 7—and inspiring many in the crowd to jump to their feet and testify along with her when she preached about overcoming pancreatic cancer four years ago.
She sat down at the piano, where she has been impressing audiences with her precocious talents since before her feet could touch the floor at the piano bench, and elicited oohs and aahs with her confident command of the keys. Then she launched into a version of the Sam Cooke song “You Send Me,” made all the more poignant by the fact revealed in her book that she was in love with Cooke as a little girl and apparently slept with the 23-year-old Cooke when she was as young as 12.
On numerous occasions she revealed her flirtatious side, such as when a male fan shouted out, “I love you, Aretha!” while she played the piano. After responding, “I love you, too!” Aretha looked out toward the crowd and asked, “What section and seat are you sitting in?”
And of course she brought us through a small selection of her legendary songbook, doing “Chain of Fools,” “Freeway of Love” and “I Never Loved a Man,” among others. When you have as many hits as Aretha, you’re gonna have to leave stuff out and disappoint some folks.
Her voice was in divine shape, bringing many of her elderly fans in the audience back to treasured memories from their childhoods.
She saved “Respect” for her encore, which came about 90 minutes after she started, dancing gingerly about the stage as the crowd rose to its feet and danced along with her. By the time she walked off the last time, after telling us how special Atlanta has always been to her, you felt happy, grateful that you had gotten the chance to share a memorable evening with the greatest singer of all time.