Aretha Franklin - vocals, piano; Eric Gale (?) - guitar; Chuck Rainey (?)- bass; Bernard Purdie - drums; Pancho Morales - congas, percussion; Brenda Bryant - backing vocals; Margaret Branch - backing vocals; Pat Smith - backing vocals; unidentified - keyboards; unidentified - horns
On the final night of the second annual Newport Jazz Festival held in New York, George Wein presented a monumental bill at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. This was an ambitious move as Newport Jazz Festival events were rarely ever staged at such a large venue, but the 1973 festival grand finale boasted one of the most impressive lineups ever assembled on one stage, with headliners Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Donny Hathaway, and the undisputed Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
At the time of this performance, Franklin was at the tail end of her brightest, most diverse and productive era and was arguably at the zenith of her popularity, having enjoyed a non-stop string of hits during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Riding high on the success of one of her greatest albums, the 1972 release Young, Gifted And Black, which had spawned the hits "Rock Steady," "Day Dreaming," and "Brand New Me," Franklin had truly become a cultural icon in addition to being one of the most original and distinctive singers on the planet.
The live recordings of Aretha that were captured during her three-night Fillmore West run two years prior (also available here at Wolfgang's) are now the stuff of legend and deservedly so, but this 1973 performance is equally worthy of attention. With an emphasis on material from the Young, Gifted And Black, album, this is a fascinating listen that clearly shows Aretha's originality and ability to tackle wide-ranging musical genres while giving every song her undeniable stamp. Other than a few select television appearances, true live performance recordings of Aretha from this era are practically non-existent, making this one all the more enticing.
Appropriately enough, Aretha launches into her set with the upbeat lead single from her Young, Gifted And Black album, "Rock Steady." Fueled by her fantastic band's sexy and funky grooves, "Rock Steady" is an immediate attention grabber with phenomenal vocal arrangements. Utilizing her backup vocalists to marvelous effect (What it is! What it is!), this opener finds Aretha in great form and wasting no time getting the Nassau Coliseum audience moving and grooving.
Another highlight of that album (and also the impressive b-side of the "Rock Steady" single), "Oh Me Oh My (I'm A Fool for You Baby)" follows. Originally a pop hit for British singer Lulu, this number demonstrates Franklin's interpretive abilities as she and her backup vocalists inject the song with a soulfulness that projects far more emotional impact than the original.
Next up is the emotionally drenched soul ballad "Angel," providing an enticing taste of Franklin's newest recording at the time, her 1973 album Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky). Released shortly before this performance as that album's lead-off single, "Angel" was co-written by Franklin's sister Carolyn and Sonny Saunders and would soon rise to the top of the R&B singles chart before crossing over, reaching the Top 20 in the Pop charts, as well.
Returning to material from the Young, Gifted And Black album, things take a much mellower turn as Franklin's band provides a light and airy feel to "Day Dreaming." Aretha rarely sounded more sweet and sensual as on "Day Dreaming," and it would become her 12th number one soul single, selling over a million copies. (As a sidebar, Donny Hathaway, who also appeared on the impressive bill that night, and whose set is also available here at Wolfgang's, played keyboards on the original studio recording.)
Two additional examples of Franklin's gift for interpretation follow. The first of these is a cover of Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector's "Spanish Harlem," which had been a big hit for Ben E. King back in 1960. Franklin's rearrangement is quite infectious and revises the lyric slightly (from "There's a red rose in Spanish Harlem" to "There's a rose in Black and Spanish Harlem"), updating the song for another generation and in the process taking it soaring to another level. Much the same can be said for Aretha's wonderfully jazzy piano-based interpretation of the Theresa Bell, Jerry Butler, Kenny Gamble collaboration "Brand New Me."
All of which leads up to the conclusion to this set; an extended workout on "Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)." When released in 1967 on her groundbreaking I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You album for Atlantic, this number resonated as deeply as any release from that dynamic year despite never being released as a single. Six years later, this performance is no less powerful and showcases Franklin belting out the blues in a manner that cannot be denied. This entire performance reflects Franklin's rich musical heritage, but this closing number remains one of the primary reasons why Aretha Franklin reigns supreme among the most important female vocalists of the era.