July 12, 2006

The Queen Holds Court In East Hampton

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You've seen and heard her on television, but hearing "the voice" live is an earth-shattering experience, especially from a few feet away.

When Aretha Franklin took the stage at Ross School around 9 p.m. on July 3rd, a good vibe had already been established thanks to the genuinely nice students who intermingled with the crowd of 400 throughout the evening.

But even the most scholarly of music fans wouldn't have been able to imagine the power and the beauty the Queen of Soul so effortlessly produces.

She was backed by a 24-piece, tuxedo-clad band, complete with a conductor, nine-piece horn section, and a lovely lady whose sole purpose was to tap a tambourine. Any doubt the throng of musicians would overpower Franklin's voice dissolved with the first few lines of "Respect," which she belted out with the verve of a teenager. The voice soars - sometimes, it seemed, to unfathomable heights - but then she brings it down to almost childlike sweetness, as when she offered her tender rendition of "Angel."

In between the hits, like "Natural Woman," and "Chains" `Retha delved into a little jazz, pop and a healthy dish of gospel.

Born in Memphis but raised in Detroit, this daughter of a preacher started singing gospel at her father's church at the age of 14. Franklin signed with Columbia Records but had trouble converting her obvious ability into hit records.

All that changed when she went into the studio with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Wexler, a longtime East Hampton resident, told me the secret - he put Franklin in front of a piano alone in the recording studio. "She was very shy, almost painfully so," Wexler recalled.

Later he took the tracks down to Muscle Shoals and let his team of ace session players - including Duane Allman on slide guitar - do the rest. The hits rolled out including "Natural Woman" which, ironically, Wexler wrote the signature line for himself.

Franklin took to the piano at Ross School and belted out several numbers, including a touching "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and a gospel hoedown that had everyone but Jesus quaking in the aisles.

Her rendition of the aria "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's Turandot stunned the crowd and the apt finale, "The Greatest Love of All" seemed to reach an unimaginable crescendo even before she kicked it up a notch.

It was a riveting performance that recalled a comment someone made after the TV special "Six Divas," which pitted Franklin against Mariah Carey and four other female vocalists as if it were some kind of competition. "It was," one critic said, "Like watching a cat play with mice."

Far from playing the diva card, Franklin was down to earth, mingling afterwards and posing for pictures. She said it was the best time she's had in the Hamptons and was spotted at several shops and galleries the following day.

Let's face it, Franklin may be the finest female vocalist we've ever had, very possibly the best singer in the world. That she performed in East Hampton is earth-shattering news indeed.

The event brought in $1.3 million for the Steven J. Ross Scholarship Fund, ensuring continued diversity at Ross School. A portion of the funds will be used to create a scholarship in Aretha Franklin's name and has been awarded to Alaya Brown, a ninth grade student at Ross.

Franklin donated her time to the cause, which featured a cocktail hour and a sit-down dinner of local veggies and striped bass (Ms. Franklin and her entourage opted for Chinese food).

"Now I understand why Reverend Jackson spoke so highly of Ross School and Mrs. Ross," Franklin said.

Courtney Sale Ross, the driving force behind the school, spoke passionately about Ross School before the musical performance, noting both the diversity of the student body and proudly pointing out almost half are on scholarship.

The kids, none of whom were even a sparkle when Franklin hit the charts, took to the music of the 19-time Grammy winner at once, though those clustered in front of the stage were quickly overwhelmed by the foot-stomping, arm waving, older crowd. How odd it must have looked - so old, so immature. It was invigorating to be so overcome with joy as to lose control of yourself one last time.

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