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The voice was incredible, but Aretha Franklin at the piano was also pure magic

The voice was incredible, but Aretha Franklin at the piano was also pure magic
Aretha Franklin sings for the crowd at the National Portrait Gallery gala on Nov. 15, 2015 in Washington. (Katherine Frey / The Washington Post)

Aretha Franklin’s visits to Los Angeles were relatively few and far between throughout her career, a function of her aversion to flying. Typically, she would travel to gigs the old-school way, by tour bus, which consequently required a good three- or four-day trek from her home in Detroit to the West Coast.

It wasn’t unusual for years to elapse between her Southland performances, so when word did emerge of a Franklin booking, I would do everything humanly possible to clear the decks to make sure I was in attendance.

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And ahead of every show of hers I’d say a little prayer that at some point she would take a seat at the piano and accompany herself on a few songs.

Like other revered pop vocalists such as Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, Franklin usually assumed the standard headline singer post out in front of the orchestra, band and singers.

But there was something special when she sat at the keyboard: a fusion of singer, instrumentalist and song that inevitably pushed the goose-bumps quotient up several notches.

When she played the Microsoft Theater in the L.A. Live entertainment-sports-dining complex in 2015, I noted in reviewing that show, “The 73-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee sang about half a dozen numbers while also accompanying herself at the piano, an exercise that adds an extra degree of inspiration to whatever she sings.”

I wasn’t alone in that feeling.

This topic, of the magic Franklin created while playing piano as she sang—a combination that stretched back to her early years performing gospel music in the church of her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin — came up periodically during my interviews with other pop music heavyweights.

“It took me ages to persuade her to play piano on ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ Rolling Stones songwriter and guitarist Keith Richards told me in 2015, referring to her version of the song she recorded for the 1986 Whoopi Goldberg film of the same title.

“The deal was,” Richards recalled, “that if we came to Detroit, she’d do it, because she hates traveling. I said, ‘I’ll make a deal with you: We’ll come to Detroit, but you’ve got to play piano.’ It’s automatic with her: She starts playing those beautiful gospel chords. She doesn’t think of herself as much of a piano player, but when [she’s] singing with it, it’s a different thing.”

Indeed, when I brought up her piano playing to the Queen of Soul herself several years ago as prelude to an interview we were doing about her latest recording, suggesting that she consider playing more numbers at the piano at her concerts, she demurred, saying something along the line of “Do you think people would like it?” It didn’t come off as false modesty.

Music mogul Clive Davis, who signed Franklin to his Arista Records label and helped reenergize her career at that time with hits such as “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” also testified to the brilliance of her performances at the piano when we discussed the making of her 2014 album “Great Diva Classics,” in which she recorded her interpretations of songs associated with other female singers. He made sure to include one track that also featured her at the piano: her rendition of Diana Ross & the Supremes’ 1966 Motown hit “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

Want more proof?

Check out Franklin’s 2015 performance at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” part of the evening’s salute to honoree King. It’s an extraordinary performance that fortunately was documented and posted to YouTube, where it has tallied more than 12 million views, at least in part thanks to the over-the-top reaction shots from King herself, clearly awestruck when Franklin sits down at the piano.

Elton John, another musician renowned for his skills at the piano, brought up that performance when I interviewed him shortly after that night. He could barely contain his enthusiasm.

“Did you see the Kennedy Center thing with Aretha?” he said sitting at the kitchen table in his Beverly Hills home. “It’s one of the great performances of all time. I watched it five times in a row. You couldn’t start the day off better off than that. And she’s 74 years of age …

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“At one point you thought maybe she was losing her voice, but she hasn’t, and at the end she goes for it, and it’s thrilling, it’s so thrilling,” he said, sounding more like the giddy music fan than a grizzled veteran of half a century in the music industry trenches. “How often do we get thrilled like that anymore, come on?”

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