By Mark Ruffin
At 70 years young, the Queen of Soul still has quite a few musical adventures ahead. Aretha Franklin will be headlining the 17th annual N’DIGO Foundation Gala on June 30th. The yearly soiree will be held at the Arie Crown Theater and features a reception, an after party and the legendary Impressions as the opening act.
Earlier this spring, on March 24th, just a day before her actual birthday, Ms. Franklin had her own private gala celebrating her milestone.
Surrounded by about 50 of her closest friends, associates and members of the media, her party was held in a ballroom at the Hemsley Park Lane Hotel across the street from Central Park in New York City. Among the guests were Al Sharpton, Diane Sawyer, and her long-time companion Willie Wilkerson.
Being the walking slice of American culture that she is, it was natural that this event served as another chapter in her long history. The president of Arista Records, Clive Davis, who she used to record for, sat at the Queen’s right during most of the evening’s festivities. Long before the birthday cake was cut, Franklin had agreed to Davis’ request that she return to his label.
“I have re-signed with Clive Davis, so I’m recording with Clive again,” the 19-time Grammy winner told the Associated Press. “We’re going to sit together and decide what it is we’re going to record.”
While the singer’s work with Davis’ label Arista Records don’t contain the majority of songs that Franklin’s fans request or what will make up the bulk of her repertoire at the N’DIGO gala, surprisingly she was with the label for 18 years. The best of those years are collected in a new anthology Knew You Were Waiting: The Best of Aretha Franklin 1980-1998.
The biggest hits of that era for Ms. Franklin included Who’s Zoomin’ Who, Freeway of Love, Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves and the duet with jazz guitarist and vocalist George Benson, Love All The Hurt Away.
Every other song you can think of by her and every other hit she had was made during the comparatively short decade she spent at Atlantic Records. It was that music created between 1966-1976 that made her the very first female inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The Queen’s legendary time at Atlantic produced a plethora of gold records, and chart toppers. Among the biggest were Chain of Fools, I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, Daydreaming, Rock Steady, and dozens others that will make up the core of the tunes played at the Arie Crown on N’DIGO Gala night.
With her long and rich history of churning out R&B and pop hits, it may have been surprising to some that the handpicked entertainment at her birthday party was an all-jazz program featuring music and dancers. The quartet providing the music were anchored by two recent winners of the very prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute jazz competition, led by 2011 winner Kris Bowers.
At the Monk ceremony, held last fall, Franklin received the Institute’s Founders’ Award to honor her little known but very generous financial support to jazz education programs all across the United States, including numerous scholarships.
After hearing Bowers play, Aretha took a liking to the 23-year-old pianist from Los Angeles. He was free to bring the musicians of his choice and play the music he wanted at her party except she had a special request for the song The Summer Knows. It is one of her all-time favorite songs, said the singer Jose James, who also performed along with 2009 Monk competition winner Ben Williams on bass.
In the middle of one of Bowers’ solos, after leaning over to Davis, this writer heard Ms. Franklin say, “He got that from listening to Art Tatum.”
The comment immediately reminded me of her very jazzy Quincy Jones produced album Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky). That 1973 Atlantic album featured a typical Jones slate of jazz superstars playing sophisticated slick arrangements, and includes her classic take on the end of the popular jazz standard Moody’s Mood For Love, where she calls out not only the song’s creator, James Moody, but also the exciting trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.
There was also a lot of jazz on Franklin’s first recordings for Columbia Records. That music is contained on a 2011 compilation titled Take A Look. It is a fabulous 12-CD box set celebrating the years 1960 to 1965, when she was just leaving her teenage years and still developing as both a pianist and a vocalist. The set includes her work with jazz pianists Ray Bryant and Bobby Scott, as well as a tribute to Dinah Washington.
The gorgeous package also has as a bonus, a DVD from 1964 of Ms. Franklin with a full orchestra performing on the NBC pioneering late night program, The Steve Allen Show.
Seeing that disc reminded me of the only time I saw the great singer perform. For her, it wasn’t a typical venue or her typical band.
It was about three years ago, when Ms. Franklin was playing another fundraiser gala. This one was in New York at the intimate nightclub, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, and the host institution was Jazz at Lincoln Center, the owner of the club.
The Artistic Director of that organization, Wynton Marsalis, didn’t show up, but many members of his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra were part of the very big band in that small room.
Aretha played her standard repertoire, but it was even more powerful with so many horns and the power of that iconic voice, now totally used to auditoriums and stadiums, kicking back and letting go in such an intimate space. The arrangements couldn’t help but take on a jazzier overtone considering the number of hard-core jazz ringers in the band.
Having never seen her perform live before, I couldn’t judge if she was any looser on the smaller stage than the bigger stages she’s accustomed to. But the wealthy, mostly Caucasian audience was certainly loose and obviously made Her Highness feel very comfortable. Personally, that is where I learned the power of a room full of rich White women singing Respect.
At her birthday party the first thing I noticed is how good she looked and how much weight she’d lost since that earth-shaking performance at Dizzy’s. She walked into the party gracefully to heartfelt applause and greeted almost everyone present personally and humbly. Then she sat at her table next to Davis and enjoyed the salutations and the jazz.
When it came time to cut the cake, the crowd, seemingly on impulse and without prompting, launched into Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday. She rose and was obviously in great spirits as humor dominated her remarks before cutting the chocolate-lime cake.
“I was wondering what it was going to be like to be 50,” she said smiling with the knife in her hand. “Now I can tell you. It feels like 40.”
She then asked us all if we had ever seen the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the Brad Pitt movie about the man who ages backwards. “Well this is Re Re Button.”
As the audience at the N’DIGO gala will soon find out, the Queen of Soul is ageless.
(Mark Ruffin is Program Director of Real Jazz/Sirius XM.)