Episode 26: Live at Fillmore West (Aretha Franklin, 1971)
Bill Graham barrels through his intro. In one long breath save the final word, Graham says, “For all of us here at Fillmore West this is a long-awaited privilege and a great pleasure to bring on the number-one lady, Ms Aretha… Franklin.”
Pulling no punches from the start, the band, led by King Curtis, with four stomps of a foot rips into a blazing-fast, catch-me-if-you-can version of Franklin’s 1967 mega-hit, “Respect.” The song, written by Otis Redding, sets the tone for this recording, 1971’s Aretha—Live at Fillmore West—in a serious way. A breakdown around two and a half minutes exposes just how incredibly tight the back-up singers—The Sweethearts of Soul—sound. Of course, it’s a crack band through and through, comprising, among others, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Billy Preston on organ, the great Bernard Purdie on drums, and not least, Franklin herself on Rhodes. After some riffing over the outro vamp, Franklin, clearly out of breath, welcomes the well-integrated crowd—leather-jacket-clad Black Power radicals and be-tie-dyed longhairs alike. “Relax and loan your soul to us for a few minutes,” she invites. “I promise you when you leave here, you’re gonna have enjoyed this show as much as any you’ve had occasion to see.”
The crowd is really turned on by the time Franklin gets to her deep blues, “Dr. Feelgood,” another tune, like “Respect,” originally released on her 1967 album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, this one significantly slowed down from the original. Franklin wails; the audience responds in kind. By the time she reaches the stop-time chorus, she’s joined by a spontaneous chorus of young women who can’t help but join in at full volume. By the tune’s end, she’s taken the crowd to church, shouting fire, asking for “yeahs” and getting them and then some. Who needs Dr. Feelgood when you’ve got Aretha Franklin?
She returns to church later in the set when she plays the title track from her previous record, Spirit in the Dark. The song, which starts out ambling—it’s almost a funky dirge—soon clicks into double-time, as Franklin sings about moving with spirit. But after three minutes, Franklin’s electric piano introduces a newly redoubled tempo, pushing them into truly spirit-moving shout-band territory. After the thrilling conclusion, as band and crowd both catch breath, Franklin pulls from the wings a special guest—the Right Reverend Ray Charles—to join her for a lengthy, packed-with-jam reprise of “Spirit in the Dark.” Charles had to be cajoled into giving permission for his appearance to be released, owing to the fact that he was self-conscious about having muffed the lyrics. But Aretha had no such reservations, saying of the duet, “Between the two of us, soul oozed out of every pore of the Fillmore. All the planets were aligned right that night, because when the music came down, it was as real and righteous as any recording I’d ever made.” She was 28 at the time.
Over the course of the three-night engagement, Franklin had not only included powerfully individual versions of some of her established pop covers, such as the Beatles’s “Eleanor Rigby” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”—on which she played the first verse on the Rhodes to great effect—but she also brought forth two covers she’d prepared especially for the Fillmore: Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With”—“a little something we’re experimenting with,” she tells the audience—and Bread’s “Make it with You.” Yes, yes, of course this was a calculated appeal by producer Jerry Wexler to the Fillmore’s regular crowd of flower children, but with all of these songs drawn through Franklin’s brilliant conception, and played by the one of the funkiest, most solid bands there ever was, the result is anything but pandering. "Take the old and make it new; take the new and make it holy."
The album ends as the evenings did, with a relaxed and swaying version of Ashford and Simpson’s song, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” prefaced by a compliment from Franklin to the crowd that they had been “much more than I could have ever expected.”
Take a listen to this old album when you can, and make it new. The holy part it’s already got covered.
I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.