Aretha Franklin is rightly revered as one of the great singers of all time – the single greatest, according to Rolling Stone‘s official rankings – but sometimes that overshadows her other talents, including her songwriting and her piano playing. On the night of March 6th, 1971, in the middle of a three-show stand at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, Franklin sat down at the piano and for nine astonishing minutes, showed off everything she could do with “Dr. Feelgood,” a blues song she wrote four years earlier for her breakthrough album I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You. She took that performance from the Fillmore to the bedroom to church, and then back again.
Singer Luther Vandross, in conversation with David Ritz, once observed that “Dr. Feelgood” was “basically nothing more than a 12-bar blues. But the lyrics! And her piano playing! It’s like something my mama’s mama listened to – one of those original ladies, like Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey.”
On record, “Dr. Feelgood” was a paean to the lovemaking prowess of Franklin’s man, made extra-saucy by Franklin complaining about how visitors to her home delayed the two of them getting it on: “I tell you girls, I dig you, but I just don’t have time to sit and sit and sit and sit tight and smile.” When Ted White, Franklin’s husband and manager, played a demo for producer Jerry Wexler, the producer said that he loved it, seeing it in the tradition of blues songs about women demanding sexual satisfaction. “Don’t put it to Aretha like that,” White warned him. “She doesn’t like to think she writes sexy songs.”
For the first four and a half minutes at the Fillmore West, Franklin delivered a “Dr. Feelgood” that was similar to the studio version, except slower, bluesier and more intense. She swung between staccato singing and impassioned wails. The Kingpins, her crack band – led by saxophonist King Curtis, and including Billy Preston on organ and Bernard Purdie on drums – followed her lead. That’s how Franklin cut most of her classic Atlantic sides: She’d play piano, and the studio musicians would build the groove around her.
The song seemed to end, but it turned out that the first four and a half minutes were just foreplay. Franklin’s fingers danced across the keyboard while she played call-and-response with the Kingpins, moaning like she was in some endurance contest with the horn section – a competition she was destined to win. She started preaching to the crowd, telling them, “Some people worry about whether they’re gonna wake up in the morning – well, why don’t you close your eyes and see?”
Finally, she told the audience that needless angst like that made her want to say something. What was her message for the young people of San Francisco? “Yeeeeeeaaaeeeeaaaaah.”
These three shows were a conscious effort to broaden Franklin’s audience, appealing to the counterculture by playing the Fillmore and doing covers of songs by the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Stephen Stills. She was skeptical of the plan: “She saw hippies as somewhat alien,” Wexler said. But, he observed, “the hippies loved the blues.” The shows were edited down into an album, Live at Fillmore West, released two months later, which hit the Top 10 and was certified gold.
In the audience at the Fillmore that weekend was Ray Charles. “She does a version of ‘Dr. Feelgood’ that’s a hundred times better than the record. She’s turned the thing into church,” Charles said of her show. “Excuse my French, but I have to say that this bitch is burning down the barn.”