Aretha Franklin, dead at 76, made history at her final San Diego show (and it all started with an interview)


Aretha Franklin, the towering American singing legend, did not perform in San Diego often. But her final area concert — in 2005 at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay — was historic, even for a music giant who repeatedly made history throughout her storied career.

Franklin died Thursday from advanced pancreatic cancer, according to her publicist Gwendolyn Quinn. She was 76.

An all-star tribute concert in Franklin’s honor this fall at New York’s Madison Square Garden was announced Wednesday, a day before she passed. That her often transcendent music will live on is a given. So — for the 1,450 San Diegans who were lucky enough to attend it — will her sold-out 2005 concert here at Humphreys.

It was Franklin’s first time on stage here since 1975. And it marked the first, and only, time she performed with one of her idols, San Diego-based jazz saxophone legend James Moody, who died here in 2010, at the age of 85, also from pancreatic cancer.

During our 2005 interview to preview her concert at Humphreys, Franklin giggled like a giddy school girl when she learned Moody was a longtime San Diego resident. With infectious verve, she then spontaneously began to sing the lyrics to his most famous song, “Moody’s Mood For Love.”

“The famous James Moody; I would love to meet him,” Franklin said. “I wonder if he would come to the concert and sing ‘Moody’s Mood for Love?’ And I would sing it with him. I’ve never, ever met him. And I would absolutely love to.”

After our interview concluded, I called Moody and his wife, Linda, to tell them of the Queen of Soul’s desire to perform here with him. It is one of my proudest moments that the interview set the wheels in motion for Franklin and Moody singing together — for the first and only time anywhere — at Humphreys.

Our 2005 interview with Franklin appears below. It is followed by our review of her Humphreys concert, which includes a photo of her and an equally delighted Moody, side by side. Their beams lit up the stage and Humphreys, just as their incandescent music will continue to illuminate listeners for a long, long time to come.

Lady Soul’s in the mood for San Diego

By George Varga, Pop Music Critic, San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 11, 2005

San Diegans are so eager to hear Aretha Franklin perform that her Wednesday night show at Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay sold out the day it went on sale in April, despite the highest ticket price ($140) in Humphrey’s history.

In turn, the legendary Queen of Soul is eager to hear at least one notable San Diegan perform when she comes to town.

“Is James Moody living in San Diego?” asked Franklin, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and has not performed here since 1975.

Told that the jazz sax great has resided here with his wife, Linda, since 1989, Franklin spontaneously broke into a line from the last verse of his biggest hit, 1949’s “Moody’s Mood for Love.”

In a voice dancing with girlish delight, and with her supple phrasing recalling one of her early idols, Ella Fitzgerald, Franklin sang: You can call now if you want to, we’re through, stretching the word “through” out as if it was musical putty.

“The famous James Moody; I would love to meet him,” said the singer of “Respect,” “Think,” “Rock Steady” and other inimitably soulful classics. “I wonder if he would come to the concert and sing ‘Moody’s Mood for Love?’ And I would sing it with him. I’ve never, ever met him. And I would absolutely love to.”

Fans will have to wait until Wednesday’s concert at the 1,360-capacity venue on Shelter Island to see if Franklin’s dream pairing with Moody becomes a reality.

But her first performance here in 30 years is cause for celebration regardless.

Like Duke Ellington, Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson before her, this Memphis-born legend is an American cultural icon whose timeless music transcends styles and generations.

Her admirers include such young vocal stars as Beyoncé, Joss Stone and Ashanti, who in 2003 noted that Franklin “definitely created and paved the way for a lot of young females out there.” Then there’s Elton John, who has said that he worships the ground Franklin walks on, and jazz piano great Herbie Hancock, who still fondly recalls the first time he heard Lady Soul (as she is also known) perform 40 years ago.

“I was on tour with Miles Davis, and we had a gig to play at a theater in Los Angeles in 1965,” Hancock said. “And the opening act was the Aretha Franklin Jazz Trio. She was this young artist and she played sort of funky jazz piano with an upright bassist and a drummer. Then she sang, and she blew the roof off the place. The rest is history. I’d rate her up there with Zeus.”

Her influence also extends to singers as varied as Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, Shania Twain and Celine Dion, who all shared the stage with Franklin for the first “VH1 Divas Live” TV special in 1998.

Her vocal power, expressiveness and dynamic control are marvels to behold. Ditto Franklin’s ability to sing virtually any style – pop, soul, gospel, blues, jazz, Broadway musical chestnuts and even light opera – with equal poise and panache.

Yet, whether she’s performing for tens of thousands at an outdoor festival, on a TV special, or at an intimate venue like Humphrey’s, this 16-time Grammy Award-winner always has the same goal for any audience.

“I want to give them the best,” she said by cell phone from her tour bus, as she traveled between recent concerts in Missouri and Oklahoma. “What else is there?”

Heavenly inspiration

Franklin and her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, grew up singing at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, which had a congregation of 4,500. The church’s pastor was their father, noted civil rights leader Rev. Cecil L. Franklin, who recorded nearly 70 albums of his sermons and music before his death in 1984.

It was in his church that Franklin fond her musical destiny, which came in the form of gospel music vocal dynamo Clara Ward.

“I was watching one of Clara’s performances,” she recalled, “and I think that would have been the moment when I said: ‘That’s what I want to do.’ When I was growing up, Clara was my mentor. And so, here and there, I would emulate her as a young child. Of course, over the years, I came into my own.

“When you’re starting out I think it’s OK to emulate someone, when you’re just getting your feet wet and getting the hang of the basics. But somewhere along the line, you gotta let go and find yourself. You have to do that. I remember my dad saying to me: ‘Be yourself. You can sing better than the person you’re emulating.’ And he didn’t mean Clara Ward, but someone I picked up a couple of little things from that were in my vocal delivery, here and there. He told me to stop that, and just be myself.”

Ward, the Rev. James Cleveland and other gospel-music giants were regular visitors at the Franklin home, as was jazz piano master Art Tatum. By the time she was in her mid-teens, Franklin was a budding gospel star and was being courted by Berry Gordy to sign with his fledgling Motown Records label.

Sam Cooke, who had recently crossed over from gospel to pop, encouraged her to sign with RCA, the company for which he recorded. Before she could, Franklin was signed to Columbia by legendary producer John Hammond, whose other discoveries included Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and – later – Bruce Springsteen.

She recorded a series of albums for Columbia that found her expertly singing jazz, blues, pop and more. But the label didn’t seem to know how best to develop her formidable talents, and her Columbia albums never found a focus that clicked on both an artistic and commercial level.

“I don’t think they did know what to do with me,” Franklin said. “But what they did do is establish an audience for me among some very important people, and that audience included Leonard Feather, who was the jazz critic at the time. I was fortunate enough at the time to get the No. 1 position in Downbeat, Playboy and a number of other magazine music polls.”

Franklin does not consider herself a jazz singer, now or then. But the music is near and dear to her heart, as she demonstrated when answering a question about the musical qualities she looks for in her band members.

“Well, to begin with,” she said, “Charlie Parker was one of the first musicians I ever really liked. And, after him, Cannonball Adderly. I worked at the Village Vanguard (jazz club) in New York with Horace Silver, Max Roach, Blue Mitchell, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane, and on and on, for years, alternating sets on stage. And so, certainly, a musician has to reach a certain level or standard for me to even consider him playing with me.”

Franklin’s breakthrough came in 1967, a year that saw her score the first five of her 46 Billboard Top 40 hits in a string that runs through every decade since. Those five songs – “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You), “Respect” (her first chart-topper), “Baby I Love You,” “A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools” – still sound as fresh and exciting now as they did then.

“When we did ‘Respect’ and put the ‘Sock it to me’s’ on it, that really opened the door to all kinds of things,” Franklin noted.

She is now completing a new album, tentatively titled “A Woman in Love.” It will be the debut release on her own label, Aretha Records. And due next spring, she said, is “a booklet, a little vocal hygiene booklet, you might call it, with tips about things I do to keep my voice strong.”

As for how history will regard her, Franklin is unconcerned.

“That kind of thing has not crossed my mind,” she said. “I’m too busy living, and having a wonderful time.”

Pop Music Review: Some highlights; few high notes

By George Varga, Pop Music Critic, San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 16, 2005

Veteran stars usually conclude their concerts with climactic versions of some of their greatest hits. But not Aretha Franklin, pop music’s legendary Queen of Soul, whose sold-out Wednesday night show at Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay on Shelter Island might best be described as: business as unusual.

Resplendent in a silver metallic evening gown, she opened her highly anticipated performance with two of the best-loved classics from her extensive repertoire, “Respect” and “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like),” both from 1967. It was a gutsy beginning, and “Respect” immediately drew the cheering audience of 1,360 to its feet. However, as with too many of the songs that followed, it was marred by a number of factors that made Franklin’s first local appearance since the 1975 Kool Jazz Festival simultaneously frustrating and fascinating.

Her fabled voice, while still a periodic joy as she enters the autumn of her years, is not what it used to be. She performed many selections without trying to hit the high notes that once came so easily, preferring to stay in a more comfortable lower register that required less effort. Where she used to ignite on stage with her very first note, and then build in intensity from there, Wednesday’s slow-cresting show simmered more than it sizzled. This situation was compounded by the fact that, while her 19-piece band sounded well-balanced, her vocal microphone was mixed too low.

Make no mistake, Franklin is still a national treasure at 63, a status she would maintain if she retired tomorrow. And her overly relaxed performance here was splendid at times, especially during her extended versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Spirit in the Dark.” But it lacked the sustained magic she once created so forcefully.

Too often, she coasted rather than soared. Her inclusion of Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” and the show-closing “The Greatest Love of All” was curious indeed, given the absence of such beloved Franklin staples as “Dr. Feelgood,” “Rock Steady,” “Freeway of Love” and too many more. Those hoping for an encore left disappointed. There was none.

Her show also was diminished by an unnecessary three-woman, one-man dance troupe, which at one point gyrated to a recording of Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers’ “Bustin’ Loose” while Franklin caught her breath offstage. Having the three young women wiggle their posteriors in the air at the exact moment Franklin sang the title of “Respect,” her enduring anthem of female empowerment, was a move seemingly choreographed by Hugh Hefner. Equally distracting were the incongruous, onstage video projections, in particular the sunflowers shown during “A Rose is Still a Rose.”

Still, there were pleasures to savor throughout, even if they came less frequently than in previous decades. These ranged from the supple, a cappella melismas she sang at the conclusion of “Natural Born Woman” to her incisive piano playing during “So Damn Happy,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Spirit in the Dark.” The latter two songs featured Franklin’s most impassioned singing of the night, and she seemed inspired by the chance to revisit her gospel roots.

The concert also included a delightful cameo by San Diego jazz sax great James Moody, whose ebullient vocal version of his theme song, “Moody’s Mood for Love,” had Franklin beaming like a star-struck schoolgirl. Alas, she only sang a few lines with Moody, whom she had never met until he joined her on stage Wednesday.

The night opened with a gutsy acoustic set by blues singer Earl Thomas, who told the crowd: “When I saw Aretha’s show was sold out, I called (Humphrey’s) and said I’d like to be an usher or a busboy, anything to get in for free – because I don’t have a boat.”

Twitter @georgevarga