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.