The stars came to Cleveland Saturday night (Nov. 5) as part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Case Western Reserve University’s American Music Masters Tribute Concert to soul legend Aretha Franklin.
The 16th annual concert, which has honored classic artists such as Hank Williams, Leadbelly and Jerry Lee Lewis in past years, was inundated with performers past and present, all of whom had felt Lady Soul’s influence on their lives and music.
But it was the show’s finale that capped off the evening in a culmination of gospel-soul goodness. After show promoters insisted that Franklin was not scheduled to perform at the concert, Rock Hall CEO Terry Stewart announced a surprise to end the night, and the curtain rose on a grand black piano, with none other than Franklin herself at its keys.
Flanked by past performers of the evening, Aretha brought down the house with her rendition of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” a call-and-response number boosted by the croons of the Temptations’ Dennis Edwards. Franklin especially dedicated the song to United States Attorney General Eric Holder, who attended the concert.
Following a standing ovation from an appreciative and animated crowd, Stewart beckoned Aretha to the podium, where she received the 2011 American Music Masters honorary award, as well as a key to the city by Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson.
Franklin, speaking at the podium in a flowing violet dress, thanked those in attendance. “I am here by the grace of God tonight,” she added. “Grace is going to lead me on.”
Aretha was also the recipient of an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Case Western Reserve. She was henceforth referred to throughout the evening as “Doctor Franklin.”
Prior to her surprise performance, the Queen of Soul sat in a ground-level private box with family members along the left side of Cleveland’s grand and spacious State Theatre. She remained seated for most of the evening, aside from a spirited, gospel-infused performance by Twinkie Clark on “Never Grow Old” and “How I Got Over,” for which she stood and clapped along with the rest of the enraptured audience. Clark, a late addition to the show following Patti Austin’s illness, stole the show with her feverish organ playing and powerhouse vocals.
The Temptations’ Edwards was another highlight, with a sequined suit and an infectious grin during his deep-voiced renditions of “Chain of Fools” and “Baby I Love You.” 2012 Rock Hall nominee Chaka Khan’s fervor was equally contagious on “Natural Woman” and “Until You Come Back to Me.”
Mike Farris, a self-professed “country boy,” set the show on it soulful track from the get-go with the soaring “Mary Don’t You Weep.” Albeit a slight lesser-known compared to his fellow performers, Farris showed he belonged immediately, with a sizzling gospel-fueled vocal as he bounded about the stage.
The Isley Brothers’ Ronald Isley performed a more intimate set, seated astride a table on which a vase of lovely flowers lay. Along with performances of “Call Me,” “Today I Sing the Blues” and “Falling in Love with Jesus,” Isley reminisced of his early days knowing the Queen of Soul.
The reclusive Lauryn Hill shone brightly on “One Step Ahead,” despite the altogether strange note on which her performance began, with Hill seemingly unsatisfied with the playing of her backing band.
Former “American Idol” contestant Melinda Doolittle sported a different hairstyle from her days on the talent show, opting now for a shorter, almost completely shaved look, but her powerful voice has not changed a bit.
Jerry Butler made a brief appearance with “Brand New Me,” Carla Cook and 2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition winner Kris Bowers delighted with their expert singing and piano-playing, respectively. Cissy Houston was flanked by former Franklin drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, the latter showcasing a highly throwback drumming style.
Setlist, Aretha Franklin Tribute Concert, 11/5/2011
“Mary Don’t You Weep”
“The Weight” (The Band)
“Brand New Me”
“(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone”
Carla Cook/Kris Bowers:
Ronald Isley (The Isley Brothers):
“Today I Sing the Blues”
“Falling in Love with Jesus”
Twinkie Clark (The Clark Sisters):
“Never Grow Old” (Clara Ward)
“How I Got Over” (Clara Ward)
Cissy Houston/Bernard Purdie:
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
“Spirit in the Dark”
Dennis Edwards (The Temptations):
“Baby I Love You”
“Chain of Fools”
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”
“Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”
“One Step Ahead”
“A Rose is Still a Rose”
Aretha Franklin (with Dennis Edwards, Ronald Isley, Cissy Houston & Jerry Butler):
“A Song for You” (Leon Russell)