Musicians honor 'love and legacy' of Aretha Franklin
Detroit — Respect was paid.
A sold-out crowd of more than 6,000 fans gathered under cloudy skies at Chene Park on Thursday as a sprawling cast of singers paid tribute to the Queen of Soul at a nearly five-hour celebration of Franklin's incredible musical legacy.
The event was titled "A People's Tribute to the Queen," and it touched on Franklin's contributions to the worlds of R&B, gospel and jazz. Performers including the Four Tops, Angie Stone and Raheem DaVaughn honored Franklin's spirit and soul, as well as her standing as one of Detroit's finest gifts to the world.
It was not a night for holding back. Performers sang to the hilt, stretching out notes and digging down deep to put a little extra soul into their songs. Johnny Gill jumped into the crowd during a bellowing "Ain't No Way" that left the singer winded.
After his performance, Gill looked upward and blew a kiss to the heavens, one of many gestures, big and small, directed toward the Queen.
Sights and sounds from Aretha Franklin Tribute Concert at Chene Park Ampitheatre. Robin Buckson, The Detroit News
More than 50 performers graced the Chene Park stage, as more than two dozen boats, including one freighter, anchored in the river behind the waterfront amphitheater to catch a glimpse of the action.
Two judges -- TV star Greg Mathis and the always flamboyantly dressed Craig Strong -- graced the stage. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan watched from the crowd, and Patti LaBelle and Berry Gordy sent in video tributes. One of the evening's biggest ovations went to Tyler Perry.
“There’s no place in the world that knows how to send someone home like Detroit,” said the actor-director, who was there along with a team of cast members from his TV show, "The Haves and the Have Nots."
Perry told a story about talking to Franklin on the phone about 10 years ago. "I remember getting a phone call out of the blue. She said, 'This is Aretha Franklin, and I want to talk to Madea,'" Perry said, referring to his most popular character. "I said, 'Well you know she's not real, right?' She said, 'I don't care, put her on the phone.' "
Family members sat in the crowd, including her grandchildren Jordan, Victorie and Gracie, who offered remarks on the night before the funeral at Greater Grace Temple Church for Franklin, who died Aug. 16 of pancreatic cancer.
“It’s truly inspiring to see how many people my grandma has touched,” Victorie said, thanking fans for their support.
Boxing great Thomas Hearns watched from the backstage area and was there to honor Franklin, whom he called a friend since the 1980s.
“I’m here to show my faith, because Aretha meant so much to the world. Everybody that knew her knew she was a wonderful person," Hearns said. "Anytime I saw her or she saw me, it was just love.”
Fans, many dressed in commemorative Franklin T-shirts, cheered the many performances, dancing in the venue's aisles and raising their hands to the sky.
Others, who were unable to obtain tickets to the event, stationed themselves outside on the hilly sections of grass and strained to hear the sounds of the concert.
The free concert was pulled together in the days following Franklin's death, with the performers volunteering their services for the evening.
The stage was dressed in white, with Franklin’s name spelled out in glittery, red cursive letters above an elevated drum kit.
The evening began with a tribute to Franklin’s classical leanings, with Nicole Joseph singing "Ave Maria" and Rodrick Dixon belting out “Nessun Dorma.”
Detroit radio personality Coco, one of the evening’s emcees, took the stage and said the night was meant to “let the world know there is love in Detroit,” and that the crowd and the talent assembled had gathered “to celebrate the light, the love and the legacy” of Franklin.
Derrick Starks and his 25-member gospel choir offered a rousing tribute, while Tasha Page-Lockhart sang a rendition of “Amazing Grace” that seemed to reach across the river to Windsor.
“We all know Aretha Franklin loved to have church,” Starks said. “Can we have a little church?”
LaBelle called for everyone to "stand up for the queen" after dedicating a performance of "You Are My Friend."
Singer-actress Jenifer Lewis brought down the house with a funny, touching tribute, performing an original song that included the lyrics, "Thank you, Aretha, from the whole human race."
“I came into town to honor the Queen!” said Lewis, during her sometimes racy honorarium.
“Nobody can sing like Aretha, and nobody will ever sing like Aretha!" she said.
Angie Stone recognized Franklin as "a mother, a sister, a wife, a grandmother, an auntie and a cousin" while remixing her song "Brotha" to pay homage to Franklin.
DeVaughn said: "Aretha, we love you girl. You're my queeeen!" at the close of his two-song performance.
Other artists who filled the night included musical director Kern Brantley, Regina Belle, Raheem DeVaughn, Dave Hollister, Angela Davis, Detroit's Keith Washington, Cherri Black, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Doug Carn, Jean Carne, Kurt Carr, Steffinie, Christian, and George Faison.
Gordy, who apologized for not being in Detroit on Thursday, offered a tribute.
"Certain artists come along once in a decade, others once in a lifetime, but Aretha Franklin came along only once. Period," said Gordy. "How fortunate are we to have been part of this unique, beautiful soul. She was my home girl. While she was never signed to Motown ... we all took pride in watching her soar ... Aretha always kept it real, a soul straight from the heavens."
Aretha hits from "Freeway of Love" to "Chain of Fools" to "Think (Freedom)" to "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" to "I Say a Little Prayer" were performed at various points in the evening.
A “Respect” finale featuring a majority of the evening's participants stretched to the 10-minute mark and closed the event. By that point, many audience members had already hit the gates.
Ellen Sanders of Redford Township said she had hoped to hear “Respect,” her favorite song by Franklin.
Dymond Moore of Detroit spent her day at Franklin events, starting early at New Bethel Baptist Church and then attending the Chene Park concert. She said she met Franklin in 2010 in New York.
“I saw her while I was eating at Benihana and she was with her boyfriend," she said. "I’ll never forget how bad I freaked out. I worked up the courage, went over to her and said I was also from Detroit and how much I admired her. She said, ‘Oh hey!’ stood up, took off her fur and took a photo with me.”