Our agreement with Aretha Franklin for this year’s American Music Masters program was that she would attend the tribute concert but would not perform. Of course, I always hoped that she would decide to sing a song, but I never pressed the issue. After all, hasn’t Aretha given us enough? We were gathered to honor what she has accomplished, not to demand more. We wanted to recognize, in professor Daphne Brooks’ words, “her brilliant body of work as a musician who materially and emotionally connected with mass audiences in complex ways that went unmatched by her peers.” The night’s fantastic performers did her justice and then some, as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees Jerry Butler, Dennis Edwards and Ronald Isley, in addition to Cissy Houston, 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominee Chaka Khan, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Twinkie Clark, Carla Cook, Melinda Doolittle and Mike Farris all brought their A-game.
After Dr. Franklin received her honorary degree from Case Western Reserve at the beginning of the evening, she watched the show from the audience with her family. We worked it out that she would return backstage during the last song of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s set to receive her AMM award. I was prepared to ask Aretha whether or not she would be willing to sing. When she and her family appeared backstage, I waited for them to get settled side stage, hoping for the perfect moment to ask Aretha to perform. Before I could say anything, Aretha leaned over toward me, and said in my ear, “I’d like a piano, please.” Talk about music to my ears – not only was she going to sing, but also she was going to play! That was more than we could have hoped for.
As our production team – led by the Rock Hall’s fabulous production director Rob Weil – scurried to reset the stage and bring forward the piano, Aretha called together Hall of Fame Inductees Dennis Edwards, Ronald Isley and Jerry Butler, as well as legendary singer Cissy Houston. Bernard Purdie sat in on drums, and David Hood played bass. The curtain rose on that extraordinary tableau, and Aretha launched into “A Song For You,” a song written by Hall of Fame Inductee Leon Russell and recorded by Aretha on her 1974 album, Let Me In Your Life. Purdie and Houston performed on the album, so it was a special treat to have them on stage. During the entire AMM planning process, one of our main goals was to communicate Aretha Franklin’s artistry at the piano. With Aretha playing the piano on stage at the culmination of our weeklong tribute, her artistry came to life amid loud applause in PlayhouseSquare's State Theatre. It was a gift to all of us there, and a perfect reflection of Aretha’s generosity and grace throughout the weekend. (pictured, l-r: Cissy Houston, Jerry Butler, Aretha Franklin, Ronald Isley, Dennis Edwards)
She visited the Museum on Saturday afternoon during the AMM conference, and toured the exhibits, reminiscing about being on the road with Sam Cooke and listening to “Frantic” Ernie Durham on the radio in Detroit – she donned the headphones in our exhibit on disc jockeys and listened to Durham’s air checks. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was in the Museum at the same time, attending the American Music Masters conference in the Foster Theater, and he came down to say hello. They met in the Beatles exhibit.
The week was a great success overall—our goal was to celebrate and educate, and we had a lot of help. American Music Masters needs many voices to work, to tell our honoree’s story from many directions. The Blind Boys of Alabama, Spooner Oldham, Daphne Brooks, DJ O-Dub, MC Lyte and Mick Boogie, Joe Lauro, Bernard Purdie, Cissy Houston and Aaron Cohen all came together to tell Aretha Franklin's story. It was fitting that the Queen of Soul end the weeklong tribute on such a resounding note at the concert. Long live the Queen.