Did you see the look on Carole King’s face when Aretha Franklin came out and sat down at the piano to sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors last month? Carole looked like she was going to jump out of her ball-gown. Honorees always look surprised and delighted when a famous person pays them tribute, but this was on a whole ‘nother level. For one thing, Carole is not a bull-shitter. After her album Tapestry exploded she moved to a remote town in Idaho and became a rancher and environmentalist. She is not from Hollyweird.
At the Kennedy Center Carole King was genuinely blown away for several possible reasons. Number one, Aretha showed up. You never know with the Queen of Soul. Aretha is the diva of divas. She gets her nose out of joint at the slightest provocation. But there she was, walking out on stage. Carole threw kisses to Aretha. Aretha threw them back. Clive Davis in the audience looked like he was going to cry. Davis is the record company honcho who has guided Aretha’s recording career since 1980. He knows Aretha’s genius and difficulty.
Then Aretha went over to sit at the piano and Carole had to cover her gaping mouth with her hand because she was so astonished. Aretha was going to sing and play the piano! This was a very good sign. When Aretha plays the piano she digs deeper into the music. This is one big reason why her classic Atlantic records immediately surpassed her earlier Columbia albums. It is also one reason why Tapestry is so good. Carole and Aretha both accompany themselves sublimely. They have that in common. And just listen to that commanding piano intro by Aretha at the Kennedy Center. Game on! It was reminiscent of the moment in 1967 when she showed up at Muscle Shoals Recording Studio in Alabama and sat down at the piano to record her first song for Atlantic.
Songwriter Dan Penn talks about that moment in 1967 in Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick. “I knew about Aretha way before she got there. Rick [Rick Hall, the studio owner] contacted me about the session, but he didn’t know who in hell was coming in. I said, ‘Who you got?’ He said, ‘Aretha Franklin.’ I said, ‘Boy, you better get your damn shoes on. You getting someone who can sing.’ Even the Memphis guys didn’t really know who in the hell she was. I said, ‘Man, this woman gonna knock you out.’ They’re all going, ‘Big deal!’ When she came in there and sit down at the piano and hit that first chord, everybody was just like little bees buzzing around the queen. You could tell by the way she hit the piano the gig was up. It was ‘Let’s get down to serious business.’”
Aretha Franklin is 73 now (the exact same age as Carole King) and not surprisingly her voice has gotten raspy with age and has lost some of the top end. At the Kennedy Center it did not matter. Aretha’s voice was weathered, but on the money and rising to the occasion. She loves the big-time spotlight and a chance to show the world again, why she is still the Queen. When she sang “Amazing Grace” for Pope Francis this year it was as though she was granting him an audience. In the Kennedy Center audience Michelle was rapt, Barack teary. Aretha is a huge supporter of the Democratic Party and Obama in particular.
Pacing the song expertly, Aretha was measured at first, taking her time, like a dowser looking for a wellspring of soul. By the second verse she was finding it, rearing back with inspired cries, building momentum. After the second chorus, Aretha stood up from the piano and made her way down to the front of the stage. Going into the last chorus, Aretha was hitting the high notes and holding them, shaking them, squeezing them, wringing them. “I feel like, I feel like, Oh-ohhh, Oh-ohhh.” As she slipped one arm out of her fur overcoat, her singing went to another level and the audience spontaneously jumped to their feet. She threw the overcoat to the floor. It was Aretha the way we remember her, singing her butt off, big and beautiful, revealing her self as we revel in her amazing soulfulness. At the end Aretha was in the throes of the music crying out, “A woman! A woman! A woman!” I’ll say.
There is a superb biography of Aretha Franklin called Respect by David Ritz published in 2014. In 2013 Ritz saw Aretha demonstrate her undiminished power at a show in Newark. In the middle of a lackluster show she suddenly got inspired while singing B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen.” “Early in this traditional twelve bar blues, she caught the Holy Ghost. She performed the miracle that only the greatest of R&B artists can realize- the union of the sacred and the secular, the marriage of heaven and earth- as she broke into a little church dance, not caring that her bra straps were slipping and her gown askew.”
The Kennedy Center Honors occurred on December 6, 2015 and were broadcast on December 29, 2015. This clip is introduced by Chilina Kennedy from the musical Beautiful in character as Carole King.