Stars flock to Aretha Franklin’s holiday soiree

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Fox2 newcasters, boxer Tommy Hearns among guests seeing singer Jody Watley, others perform

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News
The Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin enjoys the festivities at her annual Christmas party on Tuesday at the International Banquet Center in Detroit.

Aretha Franklin hosted a glittering holiday soiree Tuesday night at the International Banquet Center in Greektown, with surprise guests the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his son, Jesse Jackson Jr., circulating and posing for selfies amidst an array of Detroit TV, radio and music personalities.

“I have so much love and respect for Rev. Jackson,” Franklin told the assembled.

She also spoke approvingly of his son, a former Illinois congressman who has been out of the public spotlight for some time, dealing with personal issues.

“I am so delighted to see Jesse Jr. stepping back into his destiny,” Franklin said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, right, was the special guest at the annual Christmas party hosted by Aretha Franklin, left, at the International Banquet Center in Detroit.

Amidst holiday decorations and flowers, the Queen of Soul presented a lively slate of entertainment after dinner, including singer Jody Watley, who performed solo, taking partygoers on a fun ride back to the ’80s with her hit “I’m Looking for a New Love.” Watley also sang with her new group, Shalamar Reloaded, and her voice choked with emotion when she spoke of Franklin’s longtime support of her career.

“I don’t know if she knows how far back we go,” Watley said, telling of how Franklin chose her to be a dancer on one of her shows at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles years ago. “She said ‘Jody Watley, I want her.’ And now, out of all the singers you could have brought here, you chose me.”

L.J. Reynolds of the Dramatics warned that he was hoarse, which had absolutely no effect on his vocals, as the classic soul singer killed it on the Queen of Soul’s own hit, “Call Me.”

Dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem leaped and pirouetted to Franklin classics “Natural Woman” and “Daydreaming.” And Franklin’s own talented clan kicked off the show, starting with her adorable singing granddaughters, Victory and Grace Franklin, and son Eddie Franklin, whose soulful rendition of “This Christmas” is among the best we’ve heard.

Franklin called out to guests such as Fox 2’s Roop Raj, Deena Centofanti and Huel Perkins.

“I watch Fox 2 in the morning,” Franklin said, noting their relaxed vibe approvingly. “I like their rhythm in the morning, it matches mine.”

Tommy “the Hitman” Hearns sat smiling at a nearby table, and the Queen of Soul, a noted fan of the “sweet science,” reminisced about not only his famous fight with Marvin Hagler (“Brothers went to war!” she said, laughing. “They were thumping!”), but she also related how she used to watch the Gillette fights on TV with her father, the late Rev. C.L. Franklin.

“I was the ice cream girl,” she said. “I would go get the ice cream for them, as they watched the fights.”

Also enjoying the Queen of Soul’s hospitality were Shahida Mausi, president and CEO of The Right Productions/Chene Park Amphitheatre; WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) editorial director Chuck Stokes, singer Millie Scott, radio personality Mildred Gaddis and star bassist Ralphe Armstrong.

Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to the Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com

Free dinner

The Queen of Soul will be giving back to the community with a free holiday feast from 3-7 p.m. Christmas Eve at her father’s former church, New Bethel Baptist Church, 8430 C.L. Franklin Blvd.

She promises a buffet, including baked ham with brown sugar/pineapple glaze, oxtails (enough for 1,200), green beans and white potatoes, potato salad, pineapple upside down cake and sweet potato pies, among other delectables.

“No admission for anything, and free parking, as well,” Franklin said. “Come early! An Aretha presentation just for you.”