More than 30 acts gathered in Detroit on Thursday to give the late Queen of Soul, on the night before her funeral, a tribute as large as her iconic career, and life, deserves.
A People’s Tribute to the Queen at the city’s riverfront Chene Park Amphitheatre was a four-hour and 45-minute marathon that touched on every aspect of Aretha Franklin’s music, starting with opera and finishing with an epic, full-cast romp through “Respect,” and hitting on gospel, jazz, blues, soul and pop in between. Tickets for the free show were snapped up in minutes earlier in the week, and those without set up lawn chairs outside the venue to take it all in.
Inside, a number of dignitaries and celebrities gathered with the plain-folk fans, some of whom — Tyler Perry, actresses Erica Peeples and Jennifer Lewis, reality TV star Judge Greg Mathis, and three of Franklin’s grandchildren — took part in the show. Others including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Motown great Martha Reeves, Louis Farrakhan, the cast of the Perry TV show The Haves and Have Nots watched from the seats or backstage.
The show was exhaustive, perhaps to a fault, with plenty of emotive vocalizing in honor of the Queen. And while Gladys Knight, one of the announced headliners, was a no-show, there were still plenty of takeaway moments from the show. The top 10 included…
* Opera became part of Franklin’s legacy at the 40th Grammy Awards, when she famously filled in last-minute for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti. Fittingly, Thursday’s tribute started there, with renditions of “Ave Maria” by Nicole Johnson” and “Nessun Dorma,” Franklin’s Grammy moment, by Roderick Dixon.
* Dee Dee Bridgewater noted that even in death, Franklin “brought us all together, didn’t she, smiling and happy. She was an angel,” before a muscular version of “Sky Lark,”
* Jean Carne spiced things up by bringing La Belle’s Sarah Dash onstage to help her with “Til You Come Back To Me.”
* It wouldn’t be a Franklin tribute without gospel, and Kurt Carr and Derrick Starks took the night to church with a 25-voice choir and worship staples such as “In the Sanctuary,” “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” “How I Got Over” and others. Soloist Tasha Page-Lockhart, with the cover of Franklin’s live gospel album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism looming to her left, delivered a definitive “Amazing Grace.”
* Tyler Perry introduced Jennifer Lewis, who performed “All Hail the Queen,” which she wrote especially for the occasion. Even better was Lewis’ introduction, during which she recalled her 14-year-old niece comforting her after Franklin’s death and noting that, “Ms. Franklin must’ve been so sweet.” “I was like, ‘Bitch, ain’t nothin’ sweet about Aretha,” Lewis cracked. “Hit a wrong note and see what happens. “Sweet?! That ain’t no adjective for a diva!” Lewis also recalled Whitney Houston telling her on the set of “The Preacher’s Wife” that, “Be careful of Aretha. She takes that Queen shit seriously.”
* Narada Michael Walden joined a squad of yellow-clad Detroit divas to play drums during “Freeway of Love,” which he co-wrote and produced for Franklin. David McMurray, a Blue Note artist who’s worked with Was (Not Was), Kid Rock and Johnny Hallyday, played the late Clarence Clemons’ saxophone solo.
* The Divas did themselves proud in a segment dedicated to Franklin’s R&B hits, with Cherri Black showing admirable restraint until the end of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and Page-Lockhart going over the top on “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” The 10 women backed each other up on their individual performances and came together for a lively “Jump To It.”
* Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. — who, like Patti Labelle, sent videotaped remarks — expanded on his statement following Franklin’s death, intoning that “certain artists some along once in a decade, some once in a lifetime. But Aretha Franklin comes along only once, period. So how fortunate are we to have been part of this unique, beautiful soul.” Gordy dubbed his “dear friend” one of the “true great artists of our time” and noted that, “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.”
* Raheem DeVaughn recalled backstage that he met Franklin when he was hired to sing at her birthday party in 2009 and remembered her admiration for his hit “Woman.” He said Thursday that Franklin also asked him to write a song for her, which he penned as “Queen” — though Franklin never wound up recording it and it became a Top 10 Hot Adult R&B hit for DeVaughn. He performed both songs on Thursday and said that, “When I perform them it has a whole new meaning…She means everything to everyone, from all walks of life. We can all agree forever there’ll only be One Queen of Soul.”
* The night’s other all-star headliners found ways to tailor 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” or Angie Stone’s galvanizing rendition of “Brother.” 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 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.
* And “Respect?” While the vast majority of the crowd had already left by the time all the performers flooded on stage for the finale it was still the only way to close the night, its excess — a good 11 minutes in length — sending those who remained home in high spirits.
Franklin’s funeral is slated to begin about 9:30 a.m. Friday at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple and will be televised and livestreamed via a number of outlets. The ceremony will include performances by Stevie Wonder, Faith Hill, Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Shirley Caesar Chaka Khan, Ron Isley, Jennifer Holliday, Yolanda Adams and Franklin’s son Edward. Rehearsals were held at the church on Thursday. Speakers will include former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Smokey Robinson, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Cicely Tyson, Clive Davis, the Rev. Al Sharpton, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.