Aretha Franklin’s 1998 album, the multi-produced A Rose Is Still a Rose, proved what it set out to prove: that alone among her soul peers she could skin, fry, and suck the marrow from contemporary r&b. Her more homo-geneous new multi-produced So Damn Happy also proves what it sets out to prove: that Aretha Franklin’s voice subsumes petty stylistic details, especially in a moment when so much r&b goes for the lush timbres and hook-defying swoops and melismas that dominate her mature style. But on the Radio City stop of her supposed farewell tour, she proved something bigger. R&b—kid stuff. Queen of soul—what else you got? Aretha Franklin was as large as any pop singer you can name. Larger.
This is not a stupid joke about her weight, although her recent willingness to be fat in public says all we need know about why she’s so damn happy. It’s a statement of fact about her presence. Neil Young? Bob Dylan? In-the-house Bette Midler? Titans and vital artists all. But they don’t fill a room like Aretha Franklin. When she grumped about how Streisand would have “a chalice of water” onstage and she couldn’t even find a handkerchief, some descried temperament, but she was merely marking her territory. Maybe Streisand, or in recent memory Sinatra or Umm Kulthum, can claim comparable impact. Me, I’ll wait till John Lennon comes back from the dead. That might be a contest.
Audacity, not spectacle, was key. Anybody with cash can hire a 32-piece orchestra including two tambourine players, a bank of local cellists and violinists, and a Hammond organ. But the unlikelihood that an aggregation so grand would decline the emoluments of a synthesizer was exceeded only by the unlikelihood of her opener—not some Atlantic classic or signature piece from her two-decades-plus Arista run, but “Won’t Be Long,” a negligible r&b-styled number that rocketed to No. 76 pop as her debut single for Columbia in 1961. What was more unlikely still was that it sounded both familiar and fabulous.
What a commanding, magnanimous show. Not just “Try a Little Tenderness” and the impressionistic Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael flight she never got to do on Sullivan but also the unnecessary young dance troupe booty-popping to “Hot in Herre,” which you knew she fell in love with on the radio while cooking up some chicken (when the song resurfaced unexpectedly from the PA later, bet money she had steps ready). The gospel showpiece featuring a young rev from her father’s church with stronger, less epochal pipes. The way she went out on a vamp-till-done from the faux classic “Freeway of Love,” during which she introduced Ahmet Ertegun, her gownmaker, several publicists, and others too numerous to mention. The way she took her wig off when she wanted to let her hair down. Not just “Respect” and “Think” and “Chain of Fools” but also the single and then the title track from So Damn Happy, which sounded, exactly, both familiar and fabulous.
And of course her voice, always her voice, all over the glorious concert, all over the sturdy album. Deeper, yet undiminished. The world awaits musicological analysis of its miracles, so metaphors will have to do. Chocolate mousse cut with liqueur—here Drambuie, there Grand Marnier, when it kicks Crème de Cacao. No, my wife says, something simpler—chess pie, as they call pecan pie without the pecans, or your mother’s cooking, ’cause you know there’ll always be more. Sexflesh, I think to myself, Jimi Hendrix’s earhole or Sheena Easton’s sugar walls. Metaphorically, I mean it—no aphrodisia implied. The reality Franklin accesses is spiritual, philosophical, metaphysical—the essence of pleasure in all its incomprehensible immediacy. There’s pain in there, can’t live without it. But that’s for completeness’s sake. Like a rose, which when it pricks is still a rose. And so damn happy about it.