Some call her the Queen of Soul. Others refer to her as Re Re or Sister Re. Everyone calls her Aretha. And on Friday night, Aretha Franklin was known as the MusiCares Person of the Year in a benefit that raised a record $4.5 million for the musicians’ aid organization.
In an evening that was – much like its honoree – in turn boisterous, brilliant and beautiful, Franklin’s decades of contributions to music were celebrated by the likes of Clive Davis, Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy, Bill Cosby, Jimmy Jam and even Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi gettin’ the gospel as The Blues Brothers on a mission from God.
The three-and-a-half hour long event, produced by Phil Ramone and held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, included performances from BeBe & CeCe Winans, Patti Austin, Anthony Hamilton, John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Fantasia, Lang Lang, Ledisi and Corrine Bailey Rae, among others.
A visibly emotional Franklin, wiping away tears, took the stage to thank the crowd for the tributes. “Are you enjoying this as much as I am?” she asked. “I knew I would need two or three handkerchiefs in my purse.”
Wearing a dark grey, form-fitting, mermaid-inspired dress with rhinestones, ("It took me 20 minutes to get into the car," she joked. "I tried to get in about 40 different ways.") Franklin went on to thank her family who had accompanied her to the ceremony from Detroit. "It took us about six days to get out here," said Franklin, who avoids flying. "I knew how the people in the covered wagons felt."
Franklin, the winner of 17 Grammys, closed the evening by launching into a spirited rendition of “Chain of Fools.” She will perform at the 50th Grammy celebration Sunday night.
Many of the tributes and performances were given with personal recollections of Franklin; in a taped message, former President Bill Clinton lauded her for performing during his presidency, and most importantly, for both “people around the world, and people around the corner.”
Bill Cosby said the audience was gathered “to honor the real deal. This is not fakery. This is not someone who almost made it. This is someone that invented it.” (Not that Cosby’s remarks were entirely serious – part of his sweetly teasing tribute to Franklin included an accusation of her “being responsible for more female singers working someplace else because they tried to copy her. See, a lot of people hear that and think they can do it. But. You. Can’t.”)
After performing a rap rendition of “Respect,” Lil Mama thanked Franklin for her inspiration, noting that “music raises most children. If you inspire the youth with your music, you will make a difference.”
Interspersed with the kind words were video tributes to Franklin, as well as a photo slide show that was accompanied by a performance by her children and grandchildren.
Before the performances, attendees chowed down on Southern classics from executive chef Rick Wineman, including braised beef shortribs, collard greens and key lime pie.
To raise additional funds for MusiCares, which provides services for down-on-their-luck members of the music community, there was a silent and live auction held before the event. Items at the silent auction included art work by Grace Slick, guitars autographed by the likes of Sheryl Crow, and swank vacation packages.
The live auction included big-ticket memorabilia and Aretha swag, including an autographed 2008 pink Cadillac GTS that went for $51,500 and a Tiffany diamond heart-shaped necklace worn by Franklin that was purchased for $20,000.
The evening was opened with a benediction by the Rev. Al Sharpton — never one to shy away from mingling politics and faith — who set the perfect tone for the rest of the event: “We may debate, Lord, about who is the president…but there’s no doubt about who is the queen.”