Some 25 years ago, I had the incredible fortune to see Aretha Franklin live.
It wasn’t always an easy thing to do, considering that her extreme fear of flying often limited her appearances. But the stars aligned that night; I happened to be in Washington, D.C., and she happened to be appearing.
Now, words like icon and diva get thrown around a lot, but they’re really just a lazy shorthand for pretty much any kind of generic fame these days. They’ve lost their meaning, their strength, and they’re now wholly unworthy of applying to someone of Aretha’s talent and personality.
The fact is, Aretha transcended most normal forms of description, and operated in a rarefied atmosphere which precluded any sobriquet save for The Queen of Soul.
Anyway, let me tell you—it was a hell of a show.
There was the usual pre-concert chatter in the crowd, even after the lights went down. But when Aretha suddenly appeared, in a silver ball gown and with her hair up in a tight bun, you could hear a pin drop. The audience was, well, rapt, in a way I’ve never seen before or since.
She looked like a million bucks, and when she let loose with that four-octave voice, we were all bewitched.
“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”. “Say a Little Prayer”. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. “Respect”. “Think”. “Spanish Harlem”. “Chain of Fools”. From the Motor City to Muscle Shoals, she played all the hits and then some.
While the songs she sang that night were completely secular, Aretha’s Baptist upbringing and gospel training imbued the evening with a near-religious fervor. As a result, there was an energy within the crowd—which I’ve never really seen replicated anywhere else or any other time—which bordered on devotional ecstasy.
Moments after the show ended, there was a murmuring and the crowd began to part down the middle. I looked over, and to my surprise Aretha was headed my way, determinedly on her way to the front door, wrapped in a floor-length white mink coat and followed by two of the largest bodyguards I’ve ever seen.
People were dumbfounded—it was as if royalty were passing, and hey, doesn’t this joint have a stage door?
The thing is, she was an astonishing, mesmerizing sight; Aretha seemed otherworldly in that still-dark room, dripping in diamonds and furs, positively glowing, perhaps the single most glamorous sight I’ve ever seen.
When she approached, I couldn’t help but dumbly reach my arm out to make contact, perhaps some sort of autonomic response to make sure the vision was real. But as she passed, Aretha’s sleeve brushed over my hand and, like the sickly woman in the Book of Matthew, I touched the hem of her garment.
I may not have been made whole, but I had a fleeting, momentary, electric connection to one of the greatest—if not the greatest—singers of my lifetime. And then, just as quickly, she was out the door and gone.
Thank you for the music and the memories, Aretha.