“She was afraid she didn’t belong there,” Aretha Franklin’s producer Jerry Wexler told David Ritz in Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. That was Aretha’s mentality about staging a show in the heart of the hippie revolution: San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. For all her hesitance, Aretha Franklin was sitting on top of the world in 1971. Since signing with Atlantic Records in 1966, she had served up hits left and right. And as the hits kept coming, her reach expanded. So over 3 nights in March 1971, Aretha Franklin played the part of soul missionary to the hippies and flower children of San Francisco. The shows were recorded and released on May 19, 1971 as Aretha Live At Fillmore West. Composed of the second and third night’s performances, Aretha Live At Fillmore West immortalizes the finest recorded secular performances of Aretha Franklin’s career.
Fillmore West’s promoter Bill Graham badly wanted to book Aretha, but she wasn’t in his reach. Her ascension to success drove her booking fee up, and she was far beyond what he could afford for the 3,000 capacity venue. Jerry Wexler wanted her to play the venue too, and hatched a plan to make it happen. To offset Aretha’s booking fee, Atlantic Records would record the shows and release a live album. Though hesitant about the audience, Aretha agreed and the shows were on.
In order to properly engage this seemingly new audience, Aretha crafted a setlist that was true to her soul essence but mindful of the crowd she was venturing into. She brought some of her biggest hits, and some of the songs she anticipated to be their favorites. The show opened with an accelerated version of her hit “Respect,” easily the best way to engage a potentially foreign crowd. The tempo prepared the audience for the roller coaster ride she was about to take them on. Then she diverted into a series of covers that were tailor made to show her audience just what made her the Queen of Soul.
“Love The One You’re With” by Stephen Stills cracked the Billboard Hot 100’s top 15 less than two months before Aretha touched down in San Francisco. Aretha found herself “experimenting” with this folk record for the Fillmore crowd. It turned out to be the perfect song for Aretha to commandeer. With the backing of the King Curtis’ Kingpins brass section and emphasis on Billy Preston at the organ (coincidentally Preston inspired Stills to compose the song), Aretha demonstrates how she can take a song from another genre and infuse it with soul or “Aretha-ize” it, as she often called it. The audience’s emphatic whistles clearly indicate that her “experiment” was a success.
She applied similar rearrangements to The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Bread’s “Make It With You.” “Eleanor Rigby” was one of two Beatles records Aretha covered on 1970’s This Girl’s In Love With You (“Let It Be,” which was written for her, was the other). In the same vein as her studio recording, Aretha turns the Fab Four’s experimental sound into an upbeat and driving lament. She stays a little closer to the original tempo on “Make It With You,” but brings Bread’s starry-eyed arrangement back to earth. The Rhodes keyboard, Preston’s keyboards, brass section, and background vocals give Aretha’s soulful voice room to make the record a more emphatic interpretation of the lyrics. It’s still dreamy, but it feels urgent. And as Aretha directed the audience before launching into “Eleanor Rigby,” “don’t fight the feeling.”
Throughout the performances, Aretha rotates on and off of the Fender Rhodes electric piano (she played piano the first night, but those performances weren’t included on Aretha Live At Fillmore West). During a few key moments she cements her importance not just a vocalist, but also as a pianist. When Aretha plays and sings at the same time, she rockets to a height beyond the dizzying altitude where she already exists purely as a singer. When she’s playing, the connection she creates with the music is transcendent, and her style is unmistakable. Aretha’s keyboard is part Art Tatum, part Rev. James Cleveland, and all self-taught genius.
One of these key moments comes when Aretha debuts her towering cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Though she recorded it in August of 1970, the Fillmore West marked her debut performance of the duo’s hit. Two weeks after Fillmore West she’d ignite the Grammy Awards and debut her version to the world. Aretha’s “Bridge” would go on to top the R&B charts 3 days after Aretha Live At Fillmore West was released in May 1971 and win its own Grammy Award in 1972 for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
The Fillmore West audience didn’t know what hit them. Aretha’s version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” floats in on a sweeping and definitive rearrangement. Her new and extended introduction is complete with background vocal parts and a mesmerizing piano solo by Aretha. She infuses the song with the true gospel essence that inspired Paul Simon to write the song in the first place. This is a pivotal moment, as Aretha’s voice fervently ascends amidst her affirmation that she will be right there, through whatever.
This was only Aretha’s second live album, but it still demonstrates the immensity of experiencing Aretha in a live setting. Nothing better reinforces this than the transformation “Dr. Feelgood” undergoes before the audience’s eyes and ears. Written by Aretha and driven by a bluesy rhythm, “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)” clocks in at a modest 3:23 on her 1967 Atlantic debut album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. On Aretha Live At Fillmore West though, it’s a 7-minute experience. This live arrangement dials back the tempo, giving Aretha room to simmer into a rolling boil. As she prepares to deliver the song’s sixth and seventh words “sittin’ around,” she stays on the “s” of “sittin'” and elongates it into a slithering hiss. By the time she gets the “ittin’” out, she sounds like a teapot that’s just reached its boiling point. It’s bone-chilling. Then, her syncopated delivery of the second “ev-er-y-on-ce-in-a-great-while” is so intense it drives the audience into a frenzy, only to be heightened by the moans that follow. By the time Aretha reaches the chorus’ “don’t send me no doctor,” the audience is singing and screaming along with every word.
Any fear Aretha had about not belonging in front of this crowd was gone by the end of this 7-minute revival. Clearly she had no reason to fear this crowd. She gets so comfortable at this point in the show that she begins to testify and minister, just like her father Rev. C.L. Franklin. She unleashes runs and worried notes with a ferocity only matched on 1972’s Amazing Grace. Aretha may not have performed any gospel records during this show, but moments like this cement the constant presence of gospel within her and her music.
The final night’s show ended with a surprise to the entire venue, Aretha included. Ray Charles was in town and decided to catch the show, with the intention of remaining an audience member only. Once Aretha caught wind of Ray’s presence, that went right out the window. After closing with a rousing version of “Spirit In The Dark,” Aretha ventured into the audience and brought Ray on stage.
“I’ve discovered Ray Charles!” Aretha proclaimed in a nod to a recent Flip Wilson bit. The two jammed together on an extended reprise of “Spirit In The Dark.” When Aretha sits Ray at the piano and elicits a keyboard solo out of him, which the audience goes wild for. Despite the magnitude of the moment, it almost didn’t make the album. Ray initially resisted the release of the recording because it was so off the cuff. He didn’t know the lyrics and wasn’t crazy about his freestyled contributions. Thankfully Jerry Wexler managed to sway Ray by highlighting the gravity of him and Aretha performing together.
After Ray departed the stage, Aretha momentarily acknowledged her fear of the crowd by saying “I would like to say before we leave that, you have been much more than I could have ever expected.” Though “Spirit In The Dark” was her encore on the first two nights, Aretha decided to close her final performance with an additional song. She took Diana Ross’ debut solo single from 1970, “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” to reach her audience one last time. Aretha preached a call to action that her audience could undoubtedly identify with: “Reach out and touch someone’s hand. Make this world a better place if you can.”
For further listening, the complete performances from all 3 nights at the Fillmore West were released in 2005. Don’t Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis at Fillmore West was a limited 5,000 4-CD run, but has since been added to streaming services. It highlights the first-night set where Aretha plays piano instead of the Rhodes, as well as a 1-time cover of “Mixed Up Girl.” Stellar renditions of “Call Me,” “You’re All I Need To Get By,” and “Share Your Love With Me” from each night are so good they’re a further testament to the immensity of these shows. Because any other circumstance, you’d be a fool to leave such strong performances in the vault for 30 years.
Listen to Aretha Live at Fillmore West:
Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, by David Ritz, Little, Brown & Company, 2014, pp. 234–238.