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I’ve seen Aretha Franklin probably more times in concert since 1968 (when she first appeared in London at The Hammersmith Odeon ) than any other performer, save perhaps Dionne Warwick. When I first visited the U.S. in October 1974, it was Aretha’s show at Radio City Music Hall that was the icing on the cake that motivated me to return to England and declare to one and all that I was “going to live in America!” In February 1975. I made the move and in the ensuing nine years of living in New York, I saw Aretha with some frequency at different venues – The Westchester Premier Theater, Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, again at Radio City as well as in Washington DC (for my 1980 birthday) and at Meadowlands in New Jersey. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1984, I saw her less but after Aretha decided to take her luxury bus to L.A. a few years ago, I saw practically every Franklin show (The Greek Theater, the Gibson Amphitheater , shows in San Diego and Santa Barbara). My point? You could say that in the matter of Aretha Franklin performances, I’m somewhat of an expert.

All of which is to say that Aretha’s benefit for and Soldiers', Sailors', Marines', Coast Guard and Airmen's Club on Sunday, December 14 at the intimate Nokia Theater was simply exceptional. It’s hard to know what inspires any artist to give their best and certainly, Aretha’s done her fair share of great shows over the years. But something was different on this winter’s night. Maybe it was the fact that she was doing a show for the military. Maybe it was the season. I could speculate. The bottom line is that Aretha Franklin gave one of the best performances I’ve ever witnessed on this December night.

Kicking off the proceedings with a medley of some military-friendly songs, Aretha – sailor’s hat in place – transformed “New York New York” into a heartfelt anthem, displaying the interpretative skill that has long been a central aspect to her prodigious artistry. Then it was time for some chestnuts from the vast Franklin catalog of classics but this night, Aretha made some different choices. I haven’t heard her sing her own “Call Me” in years: re-telling the story behind the song (set in New York when she saw a couple parting company over traffic on Park Avenue), she brought it to life with the kind of emotive power with which she’s associated. As good as “Don’t Play That Song” was , it was Aretha’s very personal reading of her sister Carolyn’s “Ain’t No Way” that proved one of the night’s highlights. Sitting a few rows from the front, I watched intently as Aretha shook her head as the melody began: the song seemed to have a particular emotional quality for her on this occasion and she sang it with the kind of soulful feeling I hadn’t heard her bring to it since ’68. It was amazing.

The show naturally included cuts from her “This Christmas Aretha” album and, Aretha provided some dynamic moments during “Angels We Have Heard On High” and a rousing “The Lord Will Make A Way.” But it was her reading of “One Night With The King” that took the show to a whole new place. Aretha brought conviction to the song and an extended tag, inspired in the moment by her deep feeling for the lyric, transported me to New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. It was as if we were collectively taken back to the church where Aretha’s father, the late Reverend C.L. Franklin was presiding as his daughter brought the congregation to its feet with her natural gift. Aretha clearly was ‘in the spirit’: “Old Landmark” (from her groundbreaking “Amazing Grace” set) fueled the fire even further and Sunday night became Sunday morning all over again.

Whenever Aretha sits at the piano, we’re in for a treat and this evening was no exception although I confess that I was so wrapped up in the brilliance of her performance that I forgot what she sang! I do know that “Nessun Dorma” (frequently included in her repertoire since the year she replaced Pavarotti at The Grammys in a last minute switch when the Italian opera singer took ill) was delivered with even more passion and skill than I’ve seen on other occasions; and that even tried-and-tested Franklin staples like “Chain Of Fools” and “Respect” seemed to have new life breathed into them. Aretha delighted the 'congregation' with some Mariah Carey as in "Touch Your Body" and had the whole place laughing as she quipped about "being thrown on the floor" demonstrating a sense of humor and wit that has marked her performances in recent years.

About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create Records as a leading reissue label.

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