I saw Aretha Franklin — who died, today, at the age of 76 — perform many times over the years, and there was at least one moment, in every show, during which she reminded everyone why she was considered the Queen of Soul. I was lucky enough to see a full-length gospel show by her (at Avery Fisher Hall in New York); the “VH1 Divas” concert where she sang “You Make Me Feel Like (A Natural Woman)” with Carole King, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Shania Twain and Gloria Estefan; and many other regular concerts and festival appearances, in New Jersey, New York and Cleveland. I also interviewed her — by phone, but still, of course, a thrill.
I also got to see her dance ballet.
It was 1993, and she was presenting a one-night-only concert at the Nederlander Theatre in New York titled “Aretha Franklin: Duets,” where sang her hits and other material with Elton John, Smokey Robinson, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Raitt and Estefan. She and John performed his “Border Song” together, sitting at twin pianos; Raitt and Estefan joined her for “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” For “Chain of Fools,” John, Robinson and Stewart served as her backing vocalists, singing and dancing in unison (see video below).
I was reviewing the show for The Star-Ledger newspaper. A benefit for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization, it was being taped for a later TV broadcast, and there were many delays throughout the night, as crew members worked to set up the stage, and get the sound and the lighting right, and so on. Throughout the night, audience members were asked to be patient, and told that there was a big surprise coming at the end.
So, finally, we get to the end of a long, sometimes frustrating but often rewarding evening. And Franklin took the stage, one more time. In a tutu. And proceeded to dance ballet, with pirouettes and everything. She was 51 at the time, a legend for decades but never known for moving particularly well onstage.
It was, as at least one writer put it, “surreal.” But it also may have been the bravest thing I’ve ever seen an artist do. She wasn’t afraid of subverting expectations, or looking silly (even in front of Robinson, a friend since they were kids together, in Detroit). She had something she wanted to express, and she was going to do it, whatever the consequences were. (Still, when the television special was shown, the ballet sequence, alas, had been cut out).
Now that she has died, of course I’m going to remember her titanic vocal performances, and the way she literally changed the course of music history.
But I will also remember the night she put on a tutu, and danced.