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The Aretha Prom

Bad idea, I thought. Just think of how many ways it could fail.

Wrong. Completely wrong.

The Aretha Franklin Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall last week, shown on BBC4, was an absolute triumph from beginning to end. No, it wasn’t Aretha. She’s gone. But it was a fine, sensitive, sympathetic and rousing homage, brilliantly performed and presented.

The American singer Sheléa took the central role and pitched it just right: you could hear Aretha in her voice, but what she did wasn’t an imitation. She sang beautifully and played beautifully, too. When she sat at the piano and accompanied herself on “Dr Feelgood”, my mind went back to seeing Aretha in 1980 at the New Victoria Theatre in London, when that song provided the one moment of luminous transcendence in an otherwise lacklustre evening (and how much it still pains me to say that).

The conductor Jules Buckley put together the programme and the ensemble for the Prom. The resources were considerable, making me wish, of course, that Aretha herself could have been given such treatment more often during her career. The core band on stage might not have been Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey and Bernard Purdie, but it did the job with skill and understanding. The horns punched hard on “Rock Steady” and the orchestra was immaculate throughout, most notably during Quincy Jones’s glorious arrangement of “Somewhere” and Arif Mardin’s string chart for “Natural Woman”. There were fistfuls of funky B3 on “Chain of Fools”. “I Say a Little Prayer” provided an opportunity to admire the way Sheléa wisely resisted the temptation to over-emote.

The concert began with a spine-tingling pianissimo “Precious Memories”, taking us straight to church with the aid of Vula Malinga’s singers, who backed Sheléa with verve and had their own showcases on “Spanish Harlem” and “Day Dreaming”. Among the finest moments, surprisingly, was the gorgeously restrained version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”, which Aretha recorded during her pre-Atlantic days, when no one at Columbia really knew what to do with her. And the Albert Hall may never have come together in prayer as movingly as it did in “Amazing Grace”.

When the credits rolled, I waited to see the names of the fine musicians — the flautist, the tenorist, the rhythm section, the harpist, the members of the orchestra. But nothing. Just a scroll through the production credits: three people for hair and make-up, someone who took care of legal affairs, a production runner, lots more like that. All playing vital roles, no doubt, but hey, come on.

We were shown pre-recorded interviews with Buckley, Malinga and Everton Nelson, the concertmaster, during the interval, and also with the young drummer, Dexter Hercules from South London. At least he was identified. He said he’d been listening to Aretha’s records and paying attention to the drummers. “They sound really connected to the music,” he said. The best compliment I can pay to the Aretha Prom is to say that that’s how he and everyone else on stage sounded, too.

* Prom 47: Aretha Franklin — Queen of Soul can be seen on BBC iPlayer for the next 11 months.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Graeme Blevins and Tom Richards on tenors, Gareth Lockrane on flute

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    August 29, 2022
    • Thank you, John. And the rhythm section?

      August 29, 2022
      • Ross Stanley was one of the pianists and on organ. Jules did tell me the guys I don’t know when he did the o2 with Quincy but I’ve forgotten. Will ask him again. Tom Walsh, Robert Farnon’s grandson was in the trumpets and Claire McInerny was the other woodwind

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        August 29, 2022
      • GRAHAM ROBERTS #

        As well as the fine musicians that Mr Altman has identified – good spots, all – isn’t that Chris Laurence on double bass at the back of the orchestra?

        August 30, 2022
      • Correct

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        August 30, 2022
  2. Adam Glasser #

    Really important point about artists being identified – time was a Prom programme had extensive expert notes with a bye line and full list of performers. All that was available for the South African Songbook Prom ( sun 28th) was a free pamphlet with minimal anonymous notes and credits of the main artists only. Very disappointing and frustrating that the great musicians of the Metropole Orchestra are not credited in that evening’s programme and the RAH was packed.

    August 29, 2022
  3. ian featherstonhaugh #

    I would have looooved to have been there

    August 30, 2022
  4. nick grant #

    Yes Richard that 1980 Aretha gig was the saddest gig I have ever attended. She really didn’t wanna be there.

    August 30, 2022
  5. Simon Medaney #

    I enjoyed this post – it has prompted me to watch the concert on iPlayer. Thank you, Richard.

    I went to the South African Jazz Songbook on Sunday. It had me – and lots of other people – dancing in my seat. It’ll be interesting to read your comments…. All the best, Simon

    August 30, 2022
  6. Conal #

    I watched this and wondered about the use of the fan by the singer in the choir. Does he do that to create a warbling Doppler effect?

    Your point about the appalling lack of recognition and respect given the musicians in the band by the BBC and others is very well made.

    August 30, 2022
  7. nick grant #

    Just got round to watching it. Love Ben Jones on guitar.

    August 30, 2022
  8. Rosalind Scanlon #

    agree with every word – it was superb!

    August 30, 2022
  9. Mick Steels #

    I was someone put off by John Bungey’s review of the concert in The Times where he had reservations about the sound quality whilst observing it could be rectified for the TV broadcast. Hopefully this has occurred so look forward to catching up with it.
    Agree full personnel listings should be standard practice

    August 30, 2022
  10. Bill White #

    Mine and I know the the bugbear of many others over many years: the non-identification of musicians whose individual contributions to tv and cinema and other broadcast productions is a major component. So frustrating when almost everyone else gets a credit.

    August 30, 2022
  11. stewart #

    It was a fine show. Entirely agree about the lack of recognition given to the musicians at events such as this, where the ‘kin accountant gets a credit at the end! Can’t the MU insist on proper credit? I recall that the Director’s Guild (?) did this for films, but most TV channels fade out the credits before the end, or reduce the size while they plug the next programme. “Strictly” is a classic example, where fine musicians play many complicated arrangements live with no acknowledgment at all.credit at all.

    Music is life, and musicians deserve proper credit!

    August 30, 2022
  12. Wow I missed it. Absolutely wonderful show

    August 31, 2022
  13. Paul Roberts #

    Pretty sure the flautist was Gareth Lockrane.

    September 2, 2022
  14. Ian Wickens #

    Pedantic I know, but it’s Sheléa

    September 5, 2022

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