In January of 2012, I was photographing an event that contained some silent auction items. One of them was for Music With Friends, which brought in famous musicians for private concerts in Charlotte, NC. Their next guest? Aretha Franklin. I immedaitely contacted my then-editor for the Observer, Olivia Fortson, who was also a fan of Franklin’s music, who soon got me a photo pass to the show.
Two days before Franklin’s concert, I was photographing another event when everyone’s phones started reporting that Whitney Houston had died. Houston was also Aretha Franklin’s god-daughter. My heart sank twice that night. About Whitney Houston, and then thinking that Aretha’s show would be cancelled.
The next day, an email went out from Music With Friends. The show was on. What we didn’t know was that Franklin, who never flew on any aircraft, was already in Charlotte, having arrived by bus on Saturday. This is how Aretha Franklin came to play at the McGlohon Theater, and ultimately perform her tribute to Whitney Houston in Charlotte.
The buzz in the room before the show was electric. ABC’s 20/20 had arrived to film the show for a story on Franklin. Any space in the room that could be filled that night, was. Franklin came out to a roar that the audience that had waiting all of their lives to let loose. When Franklin walked onstage, a gentleman walked onstage behind her, and dropped Franklin's huge purse underneath her piano. I later learned that the purse contained half of Franklin’s fee for the evening, in cash.
Franklin just owned the room for the whole show, singing all of her hits, and hitting all of the notes that you would want her to hear. Two-thirds into the show, Franklin sat down at the piano, and started playing the intro to “I Will Always Love You”. And the room just stopped. For the next nine minutes, Franklin sang a tribute to Whitney Houston that went into deep Gospel soul. Watching Franklin play the piano, and letting The Spirit enter the room (to use a Gospel phrase) was a revelation. In this space, there are keys that Franklin, and other gospel musicians can play that do not exist on the wirtten page. They exist in the playing, in the feeling that the musician is leting go of, and in the room where the music happens. Thankfully, someone recorded this portion of the show on their phone, and you can watch it on Youtube. It was very real, and something that all of us were witnessed it will take with us, always.
Respect? Yes, Ms. Franklin played it on this night, and she earned it. From all of those that were there that night, and all of us that listened and learned from her.
Safe travels, Queen Of Soul.
August 16, 2018