Promoter recalls Aretha Franklin's final Detroit concert

The Queen of Soul performed at the inaugural Detroit Music Weekend in June 2017

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

When Vince Paul pitched Aretha Franklin on a performance outside Detroit's Music Hall as part of the inaugural Detroit Music Weekend, he didn't know he was preparing to produce the Queen of Soul's final hometown concert. 

Aretha Franklin performed in June during the Detroit Music Weekend in downtown Detroit. The Queen of Soul has announced the cancellation of two shows due to doctor’s orders.

But that's how it turned out. Aretha's concert on June 10, 2017, turned out to be her Detroit farewell, and it was an emotional, unforgettable performance

Paul, the president and artistic director of the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, created Detroit Music Weekend to celebrate the musical gifts that Detroit has given the world and to showcase homegrown talent. 

What better way to kick off the event than with a centerpiece performance by Aretha Franklin? That's what he thought, but when he first presented the idea to Franklin in late 2016, it wasn't an immediate sell. 

"It was a 'hmph,' " Paul said Thursday, following Franklin's death at the age of 76. "That meant she was going to think about it." 

Paul had known and worked with Franklin for a dozen years, so he knew her language  and how she operated. He knew she constantly changed phone numbers, that handlers came and went, and to keep quiet when it came to discussing Franklin, because if you didn't, "you're out," he says. 

The first time they ever spoke on the phone, Paul stopped dead in his tracks — despite the fact that he was in the middle of the street, crossing Madison from the Detroit Athletic Club on his way to the Music Hall. 

"Phone rings, she says, 'Vince Paul, it's Ree-Ree.' I froze," Paul says. "I couldn't believe she was on my phone." 

They established a strong working relationship over the years, but he understood that working with Franklin had its quirks. "You can have signed contracts, the whole nine, it didn't matter. She's gotta like you," he says. Given their productive relationship over the years, "I guess we were okay with each other," he says.  

When pitching Detroit Music Weekend, he knew not to press Franklin, and a week or so later he received a call from a member of her team telling him it was a go. Several months later, Franklin made the announcement that she was retiring from live performances, and suddenly her appearance at Detroit Music Weekend was given additional weight.

SEE MORE: Aretha Franklin's greatest live performances

Not only was there the Saturday night performance from Franklin, the centerpiece of the weekend events, there was also a Friday night tribute to her and a street dedication ceremony, where a stretch of Madison would be rechristened Aretha Franklin Way.

Additionally, on the Thursday prior to the performance, Franklin hosted a private reunion for 50-60 members of her family at Music Hall. Paul was by her side that night, as Franklin mostly stayed seated while she met grand-nieces and grand-nephews for the first time. Paul could tell she was not in good health but pressed forward. 

The next day, Paul received word that Jesse Jackson would be joining her at the event. 

"I asked, 'are we promoting this?' The answer was no," he says. Jackson was there to provide strength for Franklin. "He was the conduit to the Lord for her, and she needed the power of the Lord."

The day of the performance, Franklin was in her dressing room at Music Hall and was eager to be ushered over to the stage in a golf cart, "almost like a kid," Paul says. But there were people everywhere, traffic was clogged and Paul knew the golf cart was not a good idea. He nixed it, "knowing I was going to be in trouble because I wasn't saying, 'yes,' " he says.   

READ MORE: Fans, officials say farewell to 'the voice of Detroit'

He insisted on putting her in the backseat of a Mercedes-Benz. She agreed, and the car pulled up on Madison, just outside of the concert's backstage area. With temperatures in the upper 80s and thousands of fans gathered to see her, Franklin sat in the backseat with Jackson as time ticked by. There was an introduction from Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was waiting in the wings to present Franklin with a key to the city. More than 40 minutes passed and she still wasn't on stage. 

It was nerve-racking, Paul says, but not unexpected. Eventually Franklin exited the car and took the stage, Jackson at her side.

She opened with "I Knew You Were Waiting" as fans chanted "your majesty!" and "we love you, Aretha!" from the crowd. And she was marvelous.

She was joined by a 19-piece orchestra — 12 players from Los Angeles, seven from Detroit — as well as three backup dancers, three backup singers and gospel duo the Williams Brothers. “She threw the kitchen sink at it,” Paul says.

In addition to the thousands of fans crammed in the parking lot in front of the stage, others looked on from the the roof of the Detroit Athletic Club and from the fire escapes of the nearby Ashley Hotel.

Her 13-song set touched on classics from her five-decade career, including "Chain of Fools," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," "Hooked on Your Love," "Ain't No Way," "Brand New Me" and "Something He Can Feel." She also worked in a version of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" that segued into "Ain't No Mountain," a version she recorded for her 2014 album, "Aretha Sings the Great Diva Classics."

But she began showing signs of fatigue near the end of the set, and there was a planned encore of "Respect" that didn't come to pass. As she ended the show, she told the crowd, "God bless you, God keep you." She then took a deep breath and paused for 10 seconds before adding, "Keep me in your prayers." Paul, Jackson and a bodyguard carried her off the stage and got her back to her car. 

"She collapsed," Paul says. "I had her by her legs, and her shoes had fallen off and her stockings had fallen down." It was not a royal exit. 

They took her back to her dressing room at Music Hall where she stayed for several hours, and at around 11:30 that night, she finally left. Fans had long since gone home, a final audience with Aretha granted.  

The concert was filmed, and Paul has it shot and edited, though he has no plans to release it. It's part of an archive of Aretha material he has collected over the years, including the Queen's tea set, which she would use whenever she performed at Music Hall. 

He treasures his relationship with her, as well as the city's special bond with the Queen. 

"She lived in Detroit by design. She could have lived in any city in the world, but here she was a person," says Paul, who honored the Jacksons during this summer's Detroit Music Weekend. "When she left town, it's almost like she was on stage. But when she was in Detroit, she was the mother, the neighbor, the member of the community. We got the real Aretha."