Aretha Franklin got a lot of R-E-S-P-E-C-T from her hometown of Detroit during the past few days — even if she didn’t sing the song.
The Queen of Soul was feted over a three-day period as part of the inaugural Detroit Music Weekend festival with a street naming and a tribute concert, as well as her own free headline show in downtown Detroit that Franklin has said may be the last in her hometown. “I hope not, but it’s possible,” the 75-year-old Franklin told Billboard recently. “It’s still moving in that direction. It’s winding down. There’s a warranty on everything. Fifty-four years of traveling and flying… can be very tiring. I’m not happy, exactly, about doing something that you’ve been doing for 54 years that you really, really love. But nothing lasts forever.”
If that proves to be the case, Franklin left her Detroit fans — estimated by festival organizers at 14,000 — with a gracious finale. The hour-and-50-minute show brought out a batch of famous friends — including civil rights activist Jessie Jackson, Michigan U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, boxing champion Thomas Hearns, Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson and fellow musicians Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Freda Payne, Vickie Winans and Ivan Kral — in 90-degree heat, with the sun beating down on Franklin’s back, and in the crowd’s faces, for much of the show. During a mid-show break Franklin also received a key to the city from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and a Metropolitan Detroit Virtuoso Award from Franklin’s opera coach Mary Lynch.
During the concert Franklin, sporting a white ballgown with gold embroidery and straightened hair, surveyed much of her 60-year recording career over the course of a dozen songs, touching on her early ’60s jazz work with “Skylark” (accompanied by the late trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave’s son Kasan on saxophone), her classic soul period with “Chain of Fools,” gospel via “Precious Memories” (with the Williams Brothers from Mississippi) and pop (“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”). She also dug deeper into her catalog for fare such as “Hooked on Your Love,” “Brand New Me” and “Sweet Sixteen,” overcame a rough start to turn in a powerhouse rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and vamped “Freeway of Love” into a soaring gospel testimony.
Franklin never mentioned the prospect of retiring from the stage to the crowd, but she did reveal that she was “just getting over a bit of a spell, but I’m getting over it.” She visibly had trouble negotiating the stairs to the stage, and she chose not to return for a planned encore of “Respect,” leaving fans with a request to “keep me in your prayers.”
Franklin was a no-show, reportedly for health reasons, for Friday’s tribute concert at Detroit’s Music Hall Center, where she was to have performed the final song. That didn’t dampen that particular celebration, however, as a “Superband” of Detroit musicians (including those who play with Kid Rock, Ariana Grande, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and others) and vocalists — including Mitch Ryder, gospel singers Karen Clark Sheard and Vickie Winans, Thornetta Davis and the Dramatics’ L.J. Reynolds — played versions of 20 Franklin songs. Ryder provided a surprising highlight by joining the Selected of God Choir for “Rollin’ in the Deep,” while Tasha Page Lockhart delivered a winning one-two punch with “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Never Loved a Man.” And Winans’ “How I Got Over” built to such a fever that she kicked off her Louboutins and knocked her wig askew.
Franklin was in attendance the day before as Aretha Franklin Way was unveiled in the same area as the concerts. Franklin pronounced herself “weepy” upon receiving “this resplendent and magnificent honor” and promised to be a frequent visitor to the block that now bears her name. “I want to see it every time I come down,” she said. “I’m going to dance on it.”
While one retirement may be looming, Franklin plans to continue working. She’s hoping to release a new album — featuring collaborations with Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Lionel Richie and Yitzhak Perlman — early next year, and she’s working on a new food line with Krispy Kreme. Franklin is continuing to develop a biopic and has a museum and nightclub/restaurant in mind as well.