Chapter 1: Aretha Arrives!
I made it to my seat at 10:15pm, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Queen of Soul. The hall filled up to two-thirds capacity by the 11 0' clock showtime but it did not sell out – not even close. The stage was crammed with a ten piece horn section, guitarists, percussionists, drummer, piano player, 4 backing vocalists and a woman who seemed to roam the stage and take part in snippets of singing and sundry activities in the shadows.
But no Aretha.
Hell, there was no place to put her.
I thought maybe they could dangle her from a block & tackle pulley system, suspended from the ceiling to let her drift above the audience and give her swollen ankles and aching feet a rest, thinking 'dem dogs gotta be barking. They've carried that load a long time, lord have mercy.
Anyway, about 20 minutes passed when this dork in an oversized Cat-in-the-hat topper announces, "ARETHA IS IN THE HOUSE but…she's not quite ready."
Ten minutes later a disembodied voice tells us that Aretha's son is going to perform. And Lo & Behold – three tuxedoed brothers dance onto the stage and do about 10 minutes of B-A-D karaoke – as if there is any good karaoke. Ok…all right, already - it was mildly entertaining. And I have to admit I liked their "We got the groove" piece. Not bad.
At 11:40 the conductor – H.B. Barnum (I kid you not) gets that band grooving; the back up singers are doing a medley of Aretha's hits…oh, lord…it's getting good for me. Oh yeah, baby – B-A-B-Y, baby. Like the old "Stars on 45" franchise the singers are singing the hits while glamour-shot images of Aretha are flashed on the screen.
The MC is ecstatic as he bellows YOUR QUEEN, MY QUEEN, THE QUEEN OF SOUL! The band starts riffing on Sly & the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher" as Aretha walks out to the front of the stage. She sounds good hoot & hollerin' on the Sly (including a brief Dance to the Music in the middle eight) and she looks elegant in a scarlet dress with an empire waste and a scooped neckline….massive – more than massive – cleavage - brother, I'm telling ya. The next song "Share Some of Your Love" starts on a promising note – then, suddenly, she trips and stumbles and begins to mutter something.
Part II: Aretha Gets Snarky
She orders her long suffering conductor to take care of "it" – some lip or protuberance on the stage – as she walks away trying to compose herself, she lifts the microphone to her lips, "I hope they take care of it – I don't want to include this venue in my holdings".
Pretty good come back with just enough menace to give it an edge. This is followed by another ballad – come on, let's get to the good stuff like Think or Respect or Natural Woman, but instead all we get is Hooked on Your Love.
Before she can preface her next piece of dreck, Aretha begins coughing and grouses, "Stop pumping out that …whatever – it irritates my voice". She coughs two more times and then…you guessed it - another saccharin ballad, Call Me.
At this early juncture in the show Aretha's vibe is more Oscar the Grouch than sweet soul singer. Next up is "Tap on My Window", a song Stevie Wonder wrote for her. Aretha says it was a million seller. OK, if you say so. But it's just boring bubblegum soul without the strong 70's backbeat.
Ain't No Way is a cool 12 bar blues that livens up the show but Aretha is still angry about some invisible effluvia that is blowing up onto the stage, right in her face. Trouble is nobody else can see or feel it.
Suddenly she growls, "I'll be back when they stop blowing that…stuff, whatever it is" and stalks offstage. While the Queen is sulking in her dressing room, the band begins to improvise – cool jazz, blues, big band and some screamin' Hammond B3 jams.
After about 15 minutes Aretha returns and stomps out to middle stage and asks – more like demands – "Are you having a good time." She did not look happy. And before the show could resume, she continued her complaint of a phantom substance - "helium", she said – blowing in her face.
I'm not saying she's a Diva; she's just a little bit t-o-u-c-h-y.
Part III: ARETHA LOSES HER MICROPHONE
Aretha noticeably calms as she begins to talk about 1967 and her triumphant career with Atlantic Records. She follows Rock Steady with another old fashioned blues, shoutin' and moanin' about her man throwing her down on the floor and doin' all kinds of dirty deeds.
When the song reaches its high octane conclusion, Aretha reveals it's a Mariah Carey number and counters, "Some man throw me on the floor – I don't think so."
Chain of Fools was glorious and had me salivating for more. But alas, it was at this juncture when Aretha choked on a high note and lost her grip on the microphone. It slipped deep within the ample bosom of her cleavage. She turned her back to the crowd reached down as far as she could go, but could not retrieve it. With the help of H.B. Barnum, the rhythm section lifted Aretha upside down, stood her on her head as her erstwhile band mates lifted her up and shook her down, legs kickin' up a storm, can I hear an AMEN! But STILL no microphone.
Finally a stagehand was duly summoned - a thin white cracker who was known for his ability to squeeze through small windows and basement storm drains. So … with a little chutzpah and no concern for personal safety, he dove into the dense thicket of Ms. Franklin's cleavage in search of the lost microphone. Only trouble is…they lost him. Snuggled deep within the confines of Aretha's undercarriage, neither the microphone nor the stagehand would be retrieved.
But the show must go on…
PART IV: Aretha Sings Opera
So another stagehand was summoned forthwith and produced another microphone. But instead of gifting us with more of that wondrous R&B and sweet soul music, Aretha chose Nessun Dorma - an aria she sang at the 1998 Grammy's (filling in for an ailing Pavarotti).
The song was featured in Aretha's 2007 release Jewels in The Crown, which also included duets with Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Annie Lennox, Christina Aguilera and other notable songbirds.
She didn't sing it straight like Luciano or Placido. No… she did a "soul" version. And that was pretty cool. But when she followed opera with yet another sappy ballad – One Night with the King – I was infuriated and more than a little perplexed. I mean One Night was okay, but it wasn't the music of Atlantic Records - I Never Loved A Man, Baby, I Love You, or even Spanish Harlem. It wasn't Ruth Brown or the Drifters. It wasn't Ray Charles or a fond remembrance of Ahmet Ertegun, Tom Dowd or Jerry Wexler.
Aretha may have been annoyed by the pre-concert, pre-recorded music selection - all Motown – the Four Tops, Temptations, Martha Reeves; no Atlantic.
Near the end of the show Aretha looked a little uncomfortable, as she squirmed and jiggled across the stage, shakin' her left leg like she's trying to shake out a swarm of locusts. The microphone picked up a muffled echo of something that sounded like a human voice strangling and desperate…"help me, get me outta here – I can't breathe".
But I couldn't wonder "why" or "how" any longer.
It was past 1am and I was bone tired.
POSTSCRIPT: The stagehand was eventually peeled from a cavernous fold in Ms. Franklin's lower stomach. He was delirious and hallucinating from the effects of severe dehydration and was suffering from stress-induced Rosacea and psychological trauma associated with a terrifying back-to-the-womb experience.
I never did find out why Aretha was so strung out, uptight and in a bag.
Maybe we didn't show her enough love or maybe that "back taxes" thing came back to haunt her. I mean, why work on New Year's Eve if you don't have to?
Perhaps she needed a lucrative year-end gig to pay her bills and avoid foreclosure.
We can all relate to Aretha.
To hell with nobleese oblige. Life isn't easy and it's almost impossible to be gracious when that damn helium is blowing up in your face.