Telling the room he wept during her soul-stirring performance last year at St. John the Divine ("Bridge Over Troubled Water" in particular was a cathartic highlight of Franklin's final public performance), John was clearly still reeling from the loss, but grateful Franklin gave some of her last moments to his cause.
"It was clear she was unwell," John recalled, "But she smiled her sweet smile and said, 'I didn't want to let you down. I was supposed to play the year before, and I didn't want to let you down.'
"Cherish those artists – they don't come along very often," he urged the crowd.
He also exhorted the audience – which host Gayle King pointed out was made up of white, black, straight, gay, transgender, Democratic and Republican people all committed to ending HIV/AIDS – to cherish each other more readily. "We need to start hugging each other more or there's gonna be trouble," John said. Elton's comments followed an invigorating speech from Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who seamlessly melded personal anecdotes with historical fact and political proselytizing. Urging activists and philanthropists to put themselves in uncomfortable situations and closer proximity to those in need versus doling out donations from an ivory tower, Stevenson's speech was a refreshingly spirited challenge more than a collective pat on the back.
When Sheryl Crow took the stage to run through her roster of irresistible hits, she was clearly in high spirits, all smiles as she and her band ripped through "If It Makes You Happy," "Soak Up the Sun," "Everyday Is a Winding Road" and a new song called "Wouldn't Want to Be Like You" about "someone who can't tell the truth," which she insisted with a wink was "not about anyone in particular." Even if midterm election anxiety was nipping at the heels of the evening – and Crow nodded to it by saying that "love and facts do matter" – she still kept the mood jovial, even joking about her love life. "I've been engaged three times," she said. "I had a great time not getting married. I had an even better time not getting divorced."
Elton John is currently in the midst of his rapturously received Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour. The Elton John AIDS Foundation is in its 26th year. This year saw Patricia Hearst, Joe McMillan and Darren Walker honored for their commitment to EJAF.