The Rev. Al Sharpton said it best. Opening Friday’s MusiCares gala honoring Aretha Franklin as person of the year, the pomaded potentate thanked God for the singer, “who, though she walked as royalty, never lost the common touch.”
Amid tributes from Bill Cosby and a prerecorded Bill Clinton and “I’m not worthy” gushes from the night’s dozen or so guest vocalists, that one remark zeroed in on the essence of Franklin’s greatness: the resplendent earthiness of her voice, revealing the divinity within every woman (and man).
That stubborn realness separates Franklin from the glitzy talent shows that dominate Grammy week. This year’s benefit for MusiCares, which earned the musicians-aid charity a record $4.5 million, well suited the people’s queen. Passion and prayer replaced celebrity back-patting as singers tried to lift the black-tie crowd to its feet.
“We got too many white people in here tonight!” declared a cheerfully exasperated Patti Austin after her swinging version of “I Say a Little Prayer” failed to produce a crowd sing-along. Maybe people were too dazzled by Herbie Hancock’s fleet piano solo, Roy Hargrove’s glinting fluegelhorn or Austin’s own inventive scatting, but she was right to chastise the deadbeats.
Fantasia Barrino had just ripped up the stage at the L.A. Convention Center with a Janis Joplin-style “Do Right Woman,” losing her diamond bracelet in the process. Best new artist nominee Ledisi emanated joy performing “Rock Steady,” and the modestly bootylicious gospel trio Trin-i-tee 5:7 was fierce on a pop-gospel medley. BeBe and CeCe Winans offered a rapturous take on “You’ve Got a Friend” (a song Franklin had transformed in 1972) and a rap group consisting of Franklin’s own grandchildren offered inspirational rhymes punctuated by break-dancing.
But it took gospel matriarch Shirley Caesar, still on fire at 70, to counter the effects of the catered ribs and chicken and inspire some real call-and-response. Performing her own “Sweeping Through the City” with a full choir, Caesar stomped and squalled with a force that could blow away most R&B; vixens. Franklin, seated at the table of honor, got to her feet. Others finally followed.
Not every performer aimed for sacred glory. Corinne Bailey Rae delivered “Angel” with characteristically quiet grace. John Legend coolly led the band through “Daydreaming.” Southern soul revivalist Anthony Hamilton mined a down-home groove and earned a wave from Franklin. Lil Mama -- rap’s next star, if there’s any justice -- oozed sass in a Cavalli gown.
Classical pianist Lang Lang was a flashy oddity on the program, while the 9-year-old belter Jamia Simone Nash was predictably dazzling.
The soul queen’s own time onstage was brief but sweet. Taking the podium in a black fishtail gown and turban, she thanked her favorite record execs and the boatload of friends she’d brought along from Detroit as well as Josh Groban, whom she spotted sitting with his mom.
Franklin sang only two songs (including a hearty “Chain of Fools”) before becoming backup singer to her son Edward, who impressed on “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” That gospel hymn led to another. As the crowd filtered out, Franklin proudly raised the roof again, obviously delighted at having turned a tribute to her gifts into a celebration of the sacred tradition that shaped them.