Aretha Franklin waived her fee to headline the Sam Cooke tribute I produced some years ago. It was the 2005 American Music Masters series, held at the Cleveland Playhouse and hosted by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In Aretha’s case, waiving the fee didn’t mean it was cheap. Traveling light wasn’t her thing. She didn’t fly, so we needed to rent a bus to get her in from Detroit. Hair, make-up, band members, a couple bodyguards, a few people with uncertain roles. By the time we calculated the total, we were at $50,000. But she could have doubled that number. At least. As she told me later, she did it for Sam.
Solomon Burke was on the same show. He also said he’d waive his fee . . . if I could find a way for him to perform with Aretha. Though they’d both been on Atlantic when label chiefs Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun had many of soul music’s greatest on their roster, Burke had never performed with the Queen of Soul. When Solomon asked if I could pull that off, helikely knew as well as I did that such a decision wasn’t mine to make. It was Aretha’s. And she hadn’t even gotten back to me about which songs she’d be doing, despite me asking her manager once a day in the weeks leading to the show. But I honored Solomon’s request and put in the ask on his behalf. No response. I understood that he wouldn’t be waiving his fee.
When the day of the main event came, we saw some remarkable performances. It was the Dixie Hummingbirds, Elvis Costello, Taj Mahal, Otis Clay, Peter Wolf, William Bell, Cissy Houston, The Manhattans, The Blind Boys of Alabama. Peter Guralnick, author of the Sam Cooke biography that inspired the whole event, was there with us in the wings. Aretha closed that show with a pure and beautiful performance. After that, Solomon was going to go back out to lead the encore, singing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” at the end of which the others would come out to join him on a big out. Solomon, known as the King of Rock ‘n’ Soul, always performed on a throne. A throne had been found at a stage prop rental, but it had to be outfitted with wheels in order to make the changeovers as fast as we needed them done.
As Solomon was being wheeled out, Aretha sat down in a chair at the side of the stage, watching. To our surprise, she didn’t go back to her dressing room after closing the show. She just took a seat in the wings, a few of her bodyguards around her. Solomon went into the song. “I was born by the river . . .” It was gorgeous stuff. But I didn’t watch Solomon. I watched Aretha watching Solomon. I sensed that beneath a few layers there was something like love there. A few verses in, I realized that Aretha had held onto her microphone. That, of course, meant nothing. The front-of-house sound man would have turned it off as she left the stage. But then I saw her lifting the mic, raising it toward her mouth. And she began singing, throwing phrases behind Solomon’s lead vocal. It was coming through the PA. For whatever reason, the mic was still on, which still doesn’t make sense to me. But there it was. For a few moments no one in the audience, not even Solomon out there on the stage, knew where this voice was coming from. Aretha was still hidden at the side of the stage, sitting in her chair, singing.
I just watched her, stunned. Only when it finally registered with Solomon, Aretha stood up, straightening her gown, and walked out to him. There were tears in Solomon’s eyes. It may be the deepest musical moment I’ve ever witnessed. Solomon called me into his dressing room after the show, holding me to his chest and not letting go, thanking me. But I told him I couldn’t take any credit. It was all Aretha. The next night, we did a gospel show, with Aretha opening. She wore a long robe with a golden cross on the back. Her contract said she’d do two songs. She walked onto the stage, kicked her shoes into the audience and never asked for them back. And she didn’t leave until she’d done six of her favorite gospel songs, like she was talking to God. Rest in Peace, Miss Franklin.