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Aretha’s Greatest Albums: ‘Aretha Live at Fillmore West’ (1971)

Covering the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and Stephen Stills in San Francisco, Franklin delivered one show-stopping performance after another

Aretha Franklin

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Aretha Franklin, who died on August 16th at age 76, recorded more than 40 full-length albums in her six-decade career. It’s a deep catalog, crowded with indisputable classics and hidden gems. Rolling Stone’s music staff is paying its R.E.S.P.E.C.T.s to the Queen with tributes to our favorite Aretha LPs. Next up: Simon Vozick-Levinson on an all-time great live album.

“All right?” Aretha Franklin asks. “Are we moving in the right direction?” The answer, supplied immediately by several members of the crowd and preserved for all eternity, is yes. Scratch that – the answer is “YES!!!!” Those fans’ entire lives have been moving in the very rightest of directions to put them in that room, on that night, in shouting distance of Aretha singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

It’s March 5th, 1971, a Friday night in San Francisco. American dreams are falling apart everywhere: tin soldiers and Nixon still coming, war spreading to Cambodia and Laos, the utopian ideal of the Sixties wheezing out its last gasps. The venue whose rafters Aretha is currently shaking, Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, will shut its doors forever a few months after this show. These are some grievously troubled waters, and it takes a singer with Aretha’s forceful kind of grace to calm them.

Her delivery of Paul Simon’s secular hymn is the shining gem of Aretha Live at Fillmore West – part of an incredible Side A run of covers that instantly obsolesce their originals, at least for the night, along with “Respect,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Love the One You’re With.” One way of looking at these song choices is that Aretha is pandering to the long-haired kids in the room, proving she can keep up with rock & roll in the ’70s. The other, more accurate way is that she’s reminding everyone that there’s no song she can’t improve. She takes you inside the church where Eleanor Rigby is sweeping up after someone else’s wedding, makes you feel her aching back in the shift from third person to first. She shows Stephen Stills what sexual agency really means. She even makes Bread’s soft-rock schlock “Make It With You” sound deep.

I never saw Aretha in concert; like many children of the Who’s Zoomin’ Who? years, I discovered her music through oldies radio, movie soundtracks, and eventually used record bins and streaming service sprees. Aretha Live at Fillmore West, where she leads a red-hot band including King Curtis on saxophone, Bernard Purdie on drums and Billy Preston on keys, is my favorite Aretha LP because it’s the one that makes me feel that regret most acutely. It’s a whole album of showstoppers, a live disc that’s not just a companion piece to the studio records but an essential document of its own. Long may that shout be heard.

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