Aretha Franklin

The reigning Queen of Soul

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By Michael Norman  

It's not quite the history-making event that R&B legend Otis Redding unleashed at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival. But Aretha Franklin's three-night stand at San Francisco's Fillmore West in 1971 certainly was something special.

The "Queen of Soul" was at the height of her powers, already an international star thanks to a remarkable string of pop crossover hits dating to her 1967 Atlantic Records sessions with producer Jerry Wexler at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. But she was still relatively unknown to the rock audience, which by 1971, had completed its conquest of the popular culture.
Wexler and the Atlantic brass decided that she should begin her latest cross-over campaign with a series of high-profile gigs at promoter Bill Graham's Fillmore West, the epicenter of the hippie-rock scene that gave birth to the likes of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company, et al.
If Franklin had any qualms about performing in front of the "longhairs," as Wexler called them, she didn't show it. She would later call her three days at the Fillmore the highlight of her performing career. You can hear why in this amazing two CD live set, which features Franklin blazing through an old-school soul revue that included plenty of her own hits ("Respect," "Dr. Feelgood," "Spirit in the Dark"), plus stunning interpretations of top rock and pop hits ("Eleanor Rigby," "Love the One You're With," "Bridge Over Troubled Water.")
Her supporting cast is a band for the ages, too. King Curtis and the Kingpins and the Memphis Horns, with the Sweethearts of Soul on backing vocals. The one-two, gone-to-church punch of "Dr. Feelgood" sequing to "Spirit in the Dark" will give you chills.  
Disc 1 features the original "Live at the Fillmore West" album, originally released in May of 1971, but with a few enhancements. Most notably, there's a remarkable, 19-minute, unedited version of "Spirit in the Dark" featuring Ray Charles. It's a jam that even the Grateful Dead would envy. Disc 2 includes alternate takes and unused songs recorded over the three-night stand. All of the tracks here are keepers. All hail the Queen of Soul.

Michael Norman is Entertainment Editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.