Her royal majesty
In case you’re among the very few people who haven’t already seen it, here is Aretha Franklin serenading the annual Kennedy Centre Honors ceremony in Washington DC earlier this month. She’s there to sing “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” to Carole King, who wrote the song with her then-husband, the lyricist Gerry Goffin, in 1967.
King was one of five honorees (the others were George Lucas, Rita Moreno, Cicely Tyson and Seiji Ozawa). She was also serenaded by James Taylor with “Up on the Roof” and Janelle Monae with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day”. But, as you can see, Aretha blew the roof off the place with a performance that works on more levels than I can count.
To see her once again accompanying herself at the piano is simply wonderful. I think it was the late Jerry Wexler, the producer of her Atlantic sessions, who observed that the relationship between Aretha’s voice and her piano-playing was the foundation of her great recordings (it was also Wexler who offered Goffin and King the phrase “natural woman” as an idea for a song). Just listen to the way she delays and phrases the second half of the line “When my soul was in the lost-and-found…” And when she stands up, drops her coat and lets rip, for a few seconds this 73-year-old woman is once again that prodigy, barely into her teens, who regularly brought the congregation at her father’s Baptist church in Detroit a little closer to heaven.
Try keeping a dry eye. Barack Obama couldn’t. He may have his faults, but he’ll be missed when he’s gone. This is one of the moments for which his presidency — and the reign of the Queen of Soul — will be remembered.
Amen, Richard, and you’re absolutely right to make the connection with Aretha’s piano playing. That extra dimension is particularly apparent on the early Atlantic albums. No wonder Jerry Wexler said, “Listen at her!”
File alongside Luther performing “A House is not a Home”, at the NAACP awards in 1988.
Oh yes. What a singer he was. I was lucky enough to hear him do it at the Dominion, around the same time, with the A Team, including Nat Adderley Jr and Yogi Horton. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, here it is: https://youtu.be/gQ9ZVGM7smE
So well put Richard. A version that possibly betters her 1967 classic and a reminder that she is a wholly underrated pianist. I’ve heard it said that Paul Simon loves Aretha’s version of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ above all others as he conceived it as a Gospel song which only she can do justice to. Carole King’s slightly OTT reactions to this majestic performance of ‘Natural Woman’ suggests she feels the same. And it is interesting just how many people from so many walks of life recognise creative greatness when it happens. This video is getting re-posted and re-posted. Even the classical music blogger Norman Lebrecht, not known for his love of soul music, posted it on his Slipped Disc blog. The response to Aretha’s performance suggests that true creative greatness can unite a disparate world. Oh and the coat dropping moment is just pure theatre and quite delicious.
Fabulous Richard, thanks for sharing
I couldn’t agree me more, Richard. Aretha + piano = one voice. I must say that in her post Atlantic years, there was little that gripped me in her records. Maybe that’s my fault for not delving further. No doubt there were worthy producers but seemed to me to be just to many or she was throng to keep en vogue. It would never happen for a whole host of reasons but I did harbour the dream that someone like Dan Penn or Ry Cooder would simplify things and take her back (not to the past) to a place where her incomparable strengths are plainly evident. There are too many women singers who are tagged Divas too soon and who sing “strenuously” and cleverly but soullessly. This wonderful performance by Aretha confirms her as still way way ahead of the “competition”. I’m sure Carole King who I think is genuinely overwhelmed knows no one else could have captured the essence of that song quite like Aretha. I must dig out a tune that George Jackson covered “Aretha, Sing One For Me”. She did for Carole…
Check out her re-recording of “Sweet Bittter Love” on ‘Whos’s Zooming Who’. It’s a rare 1980s example of Aretha in transcendental soul-gospel mode and IMHO one of her best performances ever.
Lady Soul’s moving performance on this clip before a President who is mistrusted by many because of his color and in front of a wonderfully diverse, multi-cultural audience has made me more homesick than I have been in a good fifteen years.
There is, I think, a synergy to be treasured in this performance and the moments around it – a white, New York composer of great talent providing songs for many black artistes that enabled them to break through the resistance of the radio stations; the greatest female soul singer, whose gospel work and church life spoke always of the march to freedom, her historic voice still majestic at 73; and the first Afro-American president, saluting black musical heritage despite the Kenyan-Hawaiian elements of his life which separated him from those generations who struggled through slavery and Jim Crow. So the history is moving as well as the music – I let go every time at the line ‘now I’m no longer doubtful, of what I’m living for…’ And Aretha’s piano-playing is fantastic. After hearing this, I dug out her epic version of ‘The Thrill is Gone’ on which she seems almost to be playing with fists of raw passion. What a tremendous unnatural woman!
Good Lord, what a performance. Thank you for sharing it Richard.
Simply magnificent. Now imagine Donald Trump sitting in Obama’s seat. He’d have his houseboy giving a rousing chorus of ‘Don’t Mess With America’ while Aretha took out the trash.
What a wonderful clip. Electrifying atmosphere. By coincidence today I came across White House photographer Pete Souza’s selection of best WH photos of 2015. Some great shots, including one of Obama & multitude crossing Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma and a lovely photo of Aretha (with eyes closed) during a White House Gospel Tradition event.
View at Medium.com
What a life affirming end to what has been a troubled and depressing year in many ways. Great comments too on the performance, Richard, and many thanks for posting it. And what about the lyrics to those four lines that Aretha pauses on at the beginning. ‘And when my soul was in the lost and found, you came along, to claim it. I didn’t know just what was wrong with me; until your kiss helped me name it.’ Peerless.
Happy New Year. Thanks for the education/experience in Berlin. Clive
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Check this out Mots…
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Thanks a lot for that posting and video, Richard. Aretha at her magnificent best.
Happy 2016 to you and please keep carrying on with the excellent BlueMoment.