With a bona fide all-star lineup, there will likely be plenty of highlights during the A People's Tribute to the Queen concert on Thursday, Aug. 31, at Detroit's Chene Park Amphitheatre.
And the Four Tops' Ronnie McNeir is betting he'll have one of them.
McNeir will use the concert for the live premiere of "Sister Ree," a two-part song he wrote late last year after learning Franklin -- who died Aug. 16 at the age of 76 from pancreatic cancer -- would be too ill to attend her annual holiday party, for which she traditionally hires the Tops to perform.
"I knew (Franklin's) time was winding down," says McNeir, 66, whose mother died from pancreatic cancer three years ago. "I said, 'Let me do something for her before she gets up out of here. Everybody brings flowers or does tribute after a person is gone. I wanted to give her something NOW.'
"(The song) is my flowers."
McNeir's "Sister Ree, Pt. 1" is an orchestrated, gospel/soul-flavored tune in which he talks about meeting Franklin when he was 19 and becoming friends, bonding over their mutual love of piano playing. "Her playing was the bomb to me, and she used to love the way I played, too," he says. "She would hire me to play private parties for her." In the song he sings, "Sister Ree, ain't no doubt about the reason why they crowned you The Queen/You've been an inspiration all over the world...And I'm so glad I got a chance to hear you sing for me."
In the second part, titled "Sister Ree, Put Your Soul In Me," he concludes, "Hope you like it, Ree. I love you."
Franklin did. A week after McNeir sent the song through Franklin's sister-in-law she called him and told him she liked it so much that she wanted to put it in the biopic she was planning, with Jennifer Hudson as her hand-picked star.
"She said, 'This is so good, I'm gonna put this in my movie,'" McNeir recalls "I just said, 'Well Ree, I hope you do get it in the movie, but I did this just for you.'"
Producer Harvey Mason Jr. has vowed to finish the film project, and McNeir is certainly hoping that "Sister Ree" -- which he's planning to release next week with an accompanying video on YouTube -- stays on the soundtrack. But either way he says the real accomplishment is the song itself.
"For me to touch her like that, that the great Queen respects lil' ol' me, was really special," he says. "I did what I had to do. I gave her my 'flowers.' (The song) was my flowers for her."
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