At the end of Aretha Franklin’s December 29, 2014, concert at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, we in the audience stood clapping, clapping, turned toward the left side of the stage where the Queen of Soul, swaddled in gold and white, had just disappeared. She’d thanked us, saying that gotten her start at a little club on Broad Street, and she’d tip-tipped offstage, grateful, it seemed to have finished, with gusto, a full concert at 72. Having heard and read reviews of her latest album Aretha Sings the Diva Classics, I had tamped down my expectations. My friends, Becky and David, had gotten sick and generously offered up their seats, meaning that I had a chance to take our daughter, a budding pop-culture scholar and singer, to see the Queen of Soul. Our seats were not together, and I sat next to a man who said that his kids had laughed at the for going to an old-people’s concert. We argued in a friedly way, about whether Aretha could make it today. He said that with videos, she’d have to look like Beyonce; I said that with her ambition and savvy, if she’d had to as a young woman, she could have and would have. In fact, my daughter and I had been admiring her style, absolutely calibrated to her own time. “She was gorgeous!” my daughter said. We’d watched YouTube interviews and clips, saying we had to get hype while I made dinner. We vowed to scream “Nessun Dorma” if she came out for an encore.
But she did not come out for the encore. She stayed backstage, and thanked us again with her richest, most soulful speaking voice. She spoke to us as if we were one mind/body, with whom she had exchanged ideas, energy, worship, loss, love. The band continued to play underneath us and under that voice we know as well as the voices of family. Now, she said, we’d have this evening to remember–we were all standing now, most looking toward the wing where she’d disappeared in the white gown that my daughter said she wears to confound phone cameras. Now we’d have–and she broke into Streisand’s “Memories,” using the saw-edge of her late-concert voice and the hopeful lilt of gospel to make little holes in the sentiment. Each of us would indeed remember this night, as well as the spider capillaries of memories that connect this night’s voice to the times we’ve listened to her throughout our lives: at weddings, funerals, inaugurations, Grammys, making love in our our first raggedy apartments, saying good-bye at retirement dinners, praying alone in the car, driving home from hospitals.
And then, because she is not our lover or pastor or cultural consultant, but a savvy, thoroughgoing queen of soul and entertainment, she had the band strike up the “Anne Get Your Gun” staple “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” She peeked out wearing a red Santa cap with the white ball hanging just to one side; she grinned mischief, and we, still stanind, still full of memories, began to clap again, listening for her voice to cut through the band, the great Chicago-and-Detroit back-up singers, the William Brothers gospel singers who had helped her testify about recovering from illness and now shared in the curtain call, the organ and piano, drums, guitars and big brass. That voice carries honesty through the training, techniques, mannerisms and even artifice. So much honesty about life and faith and unaccountable stupidity and sin and childlike hope pours out, so much that it splashes over the sides of most any damn song into soul worship. And I got to take it in with my daughter, wearing her seamed stockings from last Christmas and her new lip piercing. Thanks to our friends. God save the queen.