Aretha Franklin - vocals, piano; King Curtis - sax; Billy Preston - organ; Cornell Dupree - guitar; Jerry Jemmott - bass; Bernard Purdie - drums; Pancho Morales - percussion, drums; Truman Thomas - piano; Brenda Bryant - backing vocals; Margaret Branch - backing vocals; Pat Smith - backing vocals; Andrew Love - tenor sax; Wayne Jackson - trumpet; Roger Hobbs - trumpet; Jack Hale - trombone; Jimmy Mitchell - baritone sax; Lou Collins - tenor sax
One of the most anticipated and ultimately satisfying run of shows ever to occur on the Fillmore West stage occurred in March of 1971, when Bill Graham presented three consecutive nights featuring Tower Of Power, King Curtis, and Aretha Franklin. Immortalized in part on the album Aretha Live at Fillmore West, these performances became a landmark event that played a significant role in Franklin reaching beyond the loyal black audiences that already knew of her.
In early 1971, Jerry Wexler, who signed Aretha to Atlantic Records and produced her classic 1960's recordings for the label, was looking into ways to introduce the Queen Of Soul to a mainstream audience. He turned to San Francisco's musically dynamic hippie culture ("longhairs" as he referred to them) as an inroad to Aretha's crossover success. It turned out to be a visionary move, but when the discussion began, Aretha had not performed before predominantly white audiences. She was highly skeptical at best and downright fearful of a disastrous turnout at worst. The proposed venue, Bill Graham's Fillmore West was legendary for its discriminating rock music audience and this, combined with the fact that Aretha was accustomed to much larger venues by this point in her career, added to the trepidation she was feeling about Wexler's plan. Aretha had long been touring with a band of her own, but Wexler had a different vision for these performances, which he ultimately planned to record for a live album, adding to the pressure. He persuaded Aretha to use King Curtis and the Kingpins, which included a dream team of musicians including Cornell Dupree on guitar, Jerry Jemmott on bass, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie on drums, Truman Thomas on electric piano, and Pancho Morales on congas. They also recruited Billy Preston, the soulful organist also recruited by the Beatles during their Let It Be album sessions. To give the ensemble the additional punch required to match Franklin's intimidating vocal power, the legendary Memphis Horns were also brought in, along with the Sweethearts Of Soul on background vocals.
This second night of the three-night stand finds Franklin beginning the set considerably more comfortable than the first night. The nervous energy of the previous night is replaced by a determination to repeat the jubilant celebration of the night before. Franklin also spontaneously revises the setlist plan by dropping "Mixed Up Girl" and adding "Share Your Love With Me" later in the song lineup, a change that will remain on the final night as well.
Following Bill Graham's introduction, Franklin again kicks things off with her infectious take on Otis Redding's "Respect," a #1 crossover smash hit, usually reserved for closing her sets. Just like the previous night, this number sets the energy level extremely high right off the bat. Franklin's classic original, "Call Me," another hit single the previous year, is up next before she spontaneously decides not to perform "Mixed Up Girl." Instead, she refers to the next song as an experiment, before launching the group into a remarkable interpretation of Stephen Stills' "Love The One You're With" that is met with rapturous approval. As great as this is, it is merely a warm-up exercise for a powerful reading of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." This was a show-stopping performance all three nights of the run, and although the album version was lifted from the final night and opening night may have been the most inspired, this version is also well worth hearing.
Not performed the previous night, Aretha adds the rhythm and blues number, "Share Your Love With Me" to the set next. A highlight of her "This Girl's In Love With You" album the previous year, this is a welcome addition to the setlist that brings another roar of approval from the audience. Despite it being under-rehearsed, its another remarkable performance and a testament to this extraordinary band. Less successful, but a bit more engaging than the previous night, are Franklin's covers of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" and Bread's "Make It With You." Franklin returns to stellar form on an emotional reading of "You're All I Need To Get By" followed by "Don't Play That Song," another recent hit at the time.
Like all three nights of this run, the remainder of the set is the pinnacle of the evening. Here Franklin sings her own songs and the intensity level immediately rises. First is a truly phenomenal take on "Dr. Feelgood," a key song from her 1967 Atlantic debut that she originally published as "Love Is A Serious Business." Unlike the original recording, this is an exploratory performance containing plenty of spontaneous vocal improvisation. Indeed, the last 20 minutes of this set contains plenty of jamming, something San Francisco audiences knew more about than possibly anywhere else in the world.
By this point, the audience is totally enraptured and to continue the momentum, Franklin segues directly into the dynamic title track and hit single off her most recent album, Spirit In The Dark. Here she combines everything learned during her younger years as a church soloist. This is a truly spectacular performance that is riveting from beginning to end. These two set ending performances alone justify her dominance as one of the greatest singers of her generation and the unquestioned Queen Of Soul. "Spirit In The Dark" leaves the audience howling for more. Franklin returns for a brief reprise of this high-energy jam before leaving the stage having experienced a second magical night well beyond her expectations.
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