By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., Chicago Crusader
“There are singers, then there is Aretha. She towers above the rest. Others are good, but Aretha is great”—Ray Charles.
The great “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin, was due to be in the Chicago area at Ravinia Festival back in June, but had to cancel due to health problems. It may be just as well that she had to cancel in June, because when Ms. Franklin took the stage on September 3 at the outdoor Highland Park venue, all was well with the world: the weather was great, and the crowd loved her, as much as she said she loved the crowd.
Aretha has lost much weight and mentioned during the concert that she had been given a clean bill of health from what has been rumored as a bout with cancer. The source of her illness has been up to much speculation during the past few years.
She also thanked Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was in the audience, for praying for her recovery.
This seems to be Aretha’s season. She was recently honored with a street in her name in Detroit. Aretha Franklin Way is situated right outside the Detroit City Music Hall for the Performing Arts. The iconic songstress is a world-renowned gospel and soul artist, with 18 Grammy awards, 20 number one R&B hits and a slew of classic singles. She has vowed to cut down on public performances, after a career that spans more than 50 years
At Ravinia, Aretha looked great in a two-piece pale pink dress ensemble, with long flowing hair. There was no purse, nor a mink coat, and her song list was a mix of old and new, with a sprinkling of Aretha’s version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” thrown in.
She didn’t play the piano, but her orchestra leader, back-up singers and on occasion, sultry young dancers, were enough to hold everything tightly together. Aretha conversed with the crowd, acknowledged Chicago area members of her crew and gave a shout out to the old Regal Theatre. From time to time, she would share a testimony, giving thanks to God for her long career and health.
The band played an introduction that included a medley of “Think/Natural Woman/Freeway of Love.” Afterward, Aretha went into hits that ranged from “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me);” “Sparkle (Giving Him Something He Can Feel),” which was enhanced by three dancers; “Don’t Play That Song;” “Natural Woman;” “Chain of Fools” and a Gospel interlude that included a Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt song titled, “My Cup Runneth Over.” Lyrics from “My Cup Runneth Over” include:
Sometimes in the morning
When shadows are deep
I lie here beside you
Just watching you sleep
And sometimes I whisper
What I’m thinking of
My cup runneth over
Sometimes in the evening
When you do not see
I study the small things
You do constantly
I memorize moments
That I’m fondest of
My cup runneth over
In only a moment
We both will be old
We won’t even notice
The world turning cold
And so, in these moments
With sunlight above
My cup runneth over
With love …
These words, while on the surface appearing solemn, seemed to sum up this run of what I believe are among the 75-year-old singer’s last public performances. The love that is revealed in this song is definitely a love that her fans displayed during a 90-minute set in the oldest outdoor music festival in the United States, with a pavilion that was filled, along with throngs of people on the lawn just enjoying the show and a ride in Aretha’s Pink Cadillac. After teasing the audience with a heartfelt goodnight during “Freeway of Love,” Aretha returned to the stage to release her admiring public with her legendary “Respect.”
I have seen Aretha Franklin three times within the last 15 years; once at the Chicago Theatre for a New Year’s Eve show at the end of 2002, a few years back at Ravinia and this show. She is one singer whom I could watch perform over and over again. She’s style, grace, substance and most definitely a diva who deserves this often overused title.