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Aretha Franklin gets her propers at Chene Park tribute concert
DETROIT -- On the night before she was to be laid to rest, the late Aretha Franklin's life and legacy elevated fans, friends and family in her home town.
The A People's Tribute to the Queen concert on Thursday night, Aug. 30, at the Chene Park Amphitheatre, was an exhaustive -- to a fault -- homage to Franklin, a four-hour and 45-minute marathon with more than 30 acts touching on all facets of Franklin's career, from the opening opera classics to an epic full-cast finale of "Respect." With fans jammed inside and a number without tickets hanging outside the venue to listen, the concert left no stylistic stone unturned and was filled with deserved plaudits -- the title of actress Jennifer Lewis' "Long Live the Queen," written especially for the night, saying it all.
"She will forever be looked to as one of the true great artists of our time," Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. said in a videotaped message shown during the concert. "While I know princesses will surely come along, I also know forever in the music business there will be only one queen -- the Queen of Soul."
The reason why was evident in the impressive scope of music offered on Thursday night. While nobody can do Franklin better than Franklin, more than a few of the acts convincingly conveyed her artistry, with plenty of emotive but certainly heartfelt singing and something for fans of every aspect of her career.
Franklin's classical fans were served with operatic treatments of "Ave Maria" by Nicole Johnson and "Nessun Dorma" -- the song Franklin famously sang at the 40th Grammy Awards as a last-minute fill-in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti -- by Roderick Dixon. Her blues and jazz ouvre were capably delivered by Joan Belgrave ("Dr. Feelgood"), Dee Dee Bridgewater ("Sky Lark") and the tandem of Jean Carne and La Belle's Sarah Dash ("Til You Come Back to Me"), while the Four Tops' Ronnie McNeir premiered "Sister Ree," a song he wrote for Franklin late last year.
With the cover of her "One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism" live album looming to the left of the performers -- and a painter creating a portrait in real time on the same side of the stage -- the gospel section took the Chene crowd to church. Derrick Starks and Kurt Carr guided a 25-voice choir through worship staples such as "In the Sanctuary," "For Every Mountain" and "How I Got Over," while Tasha Page-Lockhart delivered a definitive "Amazing Grace."
Lewis, introduced by actor-director Tyler Perry, led into her "Long Live the Queen" by recalling that Whitney Houston warned her on the set of "The Preacher's Wife" to "be careful of Aretha. She takes that Queen s*** seriously." But Williams also noted that during an impoverished upbringing in St. Louis, "when there was no food, there was Aretha. When there was no heat in my house, there was Aretha Franklin. I owned 11 45 (rpm) records; 10 were Aretha."
Narada Michael Walden joined a squad of 10 yellow-clad Detroit divas to play drums on "Freeway of Love," which he co-wrote and produced, while the singers -- including Page-Lockhart, Steffinie Christian, Cherri Black, Gwen Foxx, Kimmie Horne and more --took turns on Franklin's biggest R&B hits before convening again for a group rendition of "Jump To It." And while Gladys Knight was a no-show. the other "all star" headliners tailored their own material to fit the occasion -- as well as name-check Franklin -- whether it was Detroit native Keith Washington's "You're My Greatest Inspiration," Angie Stone's galvanizing rendition of "Brother" or Raheem DeVaughn's combination of "Woman," which Franklin told him she liked, and "Queen," which he initially wrote for her to record.
Regina Belle, meanwhile, tore up "Rock Steady" and Dramatics veteran L.J. Reynolds delivered a convincing "Call Me." Johnny Gill walked through the crowd during his long, vampy version of Franklin's "Ain't No Way," but the Four Tops Lawrence Payton, Jr. struck an even more emotional chord by covering Luther Vandross' "Dance With My Father," introducing it as a song that helped him get through his own father's death with hopes it might do the same for Franklin's family and friends.
The night's speeches -- by three of Franklin's grandchildren, Judge Greg Mathis, actress Erica Peeples and others -- were reasonable and on point, and many of the performers shared their own memories with the crowd. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Motown great Martha Reeves, Louis Farrakhan, the cast of the Perry TV show "The Haves and Have Nots" and a variety of politicians and other luminaries watched from the seats.
Spirits were high backstage, where the Four Tops' McNeir noted that, "This is the kind of thing where it's just for everybody. It's so good to see all the people come out and support it." Straight Ahead's Gayelynn McKinney, a Franklin band veteran who played drums during the blues and jazz segment of the show, added that, "This whole thing is fitting for her. She's the Queen and everybody is showing just how much of a queen she was.
And the Detroit-born Peeples, who never met Franklin, called participating in the show "a huge honor" and noted that, "I grew up on Aretha Franklin. Aretha has inspired me in every way, from her music to her legend as an activist. Being her for this, in my home town, is a blessing."
The nearly full corps of singers and instrumentalists finished the night, appropriately, with "Respect" -- a shambolic but exuberant salute designed to send the Queen, and the crowd, home dancing. Another, and probably more star-studded, Franklin tribute is slated for mid-November in New York City, but its' hard to imagine that will have the same kind of home town spirit and pride that was displayed on Thursday.
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