Cerebral. Spiritual. Surreal. Rapturous. It was all that. It happened more than 25 years ago, and I am still at a loss to fully understand it — to comprehend it in all its majesty. I’m still slightly uncertain I had such a magical experience; was it my imagination? One more time, in Aretha Franklin’s honor, I will struggle to describe it.
Before she even stepped foot on the stage, the atmosphere was ethereal. On a warm, breezy, beautiful Chicago night, on a pier off a serene, well-behaved Lake Michigan, a huge throng of fans, smoldering with anticipation, could be heard murmuring reverently. I hope she sings all her hits, the old and the new. Her stuff is timeless; the material just never gets old. She does something to you — she just gets inside your soul. I’ve never heard anybody like her.
There in Chicago, where a popular local DJ, with discerning judgment, had jaunted across the Regal Theatre stage and placed a bejeweled crown on her royal head “way back in ’67” (some accounts list the year as 1964, however, WVON, the station Pervis Spann, the DJ who crowned Aretha, worked for cited the year as 1967 in a tweet) the night air was electric.
There was something sentient about the moment. As I stood there with my mom, an Alabama Belle raised on “down home” southern gospel, I could easily grasp that this night would travel with me across the coming decades. Although time has frayed some of the details and fragmented some of the experience, the Queen gave us something we could feel, and I have never forgotten the awe of it all. In a moment of mindfulness, I was able to focus intently on my thoughts as they skittered across consciousness. It was an inquisition: What made Aretha stand apart from so many other greats, many of whom I had seen give spine-tingling performances?
Before I could work it out, the band cued up; and before I could catch my breath, the Queen appeared, and something about her mien made it clear that she was moving in the Spirit. We stood enraptured as she, in fact, played the old and the new. She extracted perfection out of every note in every song — Respect, Think, Until You Come Back To Me, Jump To It, Angel, Daydreaming, Call Me, Oh Me Oh My, Ain’t No Way, Dr. Feelgood, Rock Steady, Since You Been Gone, I Say A Little Prayer; the lushness of I’m in Love engulfed us in pure joy…Aretha was on fire. We were witnessing perfection. The vocals, the range, the phrasing, the arrangements, the flow, the cries, the focus, the feeling, the control, the power, the storytelling, the drama, the teasing, the sweet little nothings she laid on us — it was a revelation.
By the time she finished telling us about how she Never Loved A Man, I was ready to join the search party I felt certain would sally forth from the pier to find the scoundrel about whom she wailed. This man must be made to account for his treatment of our girl.
As for the vocal surprises thrown in here and the vocal purity, especially at a time when we designated some people “studio singers,” well… it was clear her performance was sanctified. It was so indescribably magnificent, it had to be godly. Her backup singers were on time every time, an in sync wonder, and her small band — pulsating and dynamic — was flawless. At one point, I just stepped back and marveled at her brilliant ability to convey love, beauty, joy, hurt, and pain. It was thrilling, magical, and mind-blowing as her voice swept over and searched our souls dispensing therapy and healing.
And just when I thought we had reached Nirvana, she sang Chain of Fools. The Queen was unconscious as she rebuked this man…and we were on her side. We were riding with her, but then…
You told me to leave you alone, My father said come on home.
She threw her head back and cried out:
My doctor saaaid take it easy—
Then she stopped—it was dramatic; we were transfixed.
You could hear a pin drop; there was absolutely no sound.
We watched in suspense as she slowly pulled her head back forward, narrowed her eyes, dropped her voice, and admitted,
Oh, but your loving is much too strong; I’m adding to your
Chain, Chain, Chain, the backup singers broke back in…
The crowd exploded. She destroyed us. My mother and I just looked at each other. Is this lady real? But we had nowhere to go, she had us captured, she wouldn’t let us think this thing through. She wasn’t through.
Next thing I know, she’s singing Natural Woman. You could have scraped me up off the ground it was so exquisite: “Before the day I met you…” Finally, the showpiece:
Ohhhhh, baby what you done to me. You make me feel so good inside. Snatched by the power of love, I couldn’t turn away from Lady Soul. When I finally forced myself to look around, I saw people crying, hugging, heaving, shaking, pulling hair from their heads, falling to the ground… I had never seen anything like it at a concert. Are we in ecstasy?
Now, I thought, “it just doesn’t get any better than this,” but her majesty perched before the piano and played her gorgeous rendition of Bridge Over Troubled Waters. ” I will lay you down…” and Amazing Grace – I think she finished it a cappella. I just slapped my hand over my forehead and cried. And, like everybody else, I spun off into my own world.
Now, it was just me, Aretha, and the myriad thoughts and the range of emotions she evoked that night. She simply banished everybody else from consciousness. Aretha. The energy she brought — it was intellectual, visceral, mystical, electric, metaphysical and therapeutic and it just rambled through my soul. What you want, baby I got it.
The Queen of Soul conducted us through all kinds of complex emotions, explored the human condition, expressed our humanity, and addressed some of our profound intrinsic needs, like respect, dignity, self-worth, acknowledgment, love, freedom, grace, peace of mind, friendship, and our need for each other.
And just for kicks, she toyed with phrasing, knowing she could sing notes any way she wanted to, thereby settling any argument anybody from anywhere may have ever had concerning who is the Queen of Soul. She practically questioned our sanity for even debating it.
The material never gets old because Aretha sang about some of the eternal conflicts between intellect and emotion, the duel between the psychological and the physical; she sang the book of life and she was a genius and a force of nature. If you saw her on a night when she was really feeling it, then you know that is indisputable.
Aretha Franklin was a gift from God. That night, all those years ago, on a special summer night in Chicago, she pried open the heavens and let us glimpse The Promised Land. By the time she left the stage, there was no pain, just wonder. The lodestar left us reflective, happy, and, although we should have been satisfied, respectfully, begging for more.
And now she has ascended—we have to let her go. She has gone to get her eternal crown. And so it shall be. And, Queen, I am glad I got to share the earth for a time with you.