She's the empress who impresses

Special to The Times

Aretha Franklin has given herself a promotion. After she cat-scratched Beyonce Knowles for introducing Tina Turner as "the queen" at Sunday's Grammy Awards, Franklin must have thought the time had come for a Michael Jackson-like title change.

So you may now address the former Queen of Soul -- following the lead of the announcement of her arrival on the Nokia Theatre stage on Valentine's Day -- as "the Empress of Music."

Ms. Franklin indeed had cause for pride, having received the NAACP Image Awards' Vanguard acknowledgment (for increasing social awareness) earlier the same day at the Shrine Auditorium. She was also honored as Person of the Year on Feb. 8 during an Aretha tribute and benefit for the MusiCares charity at the L.A. Convention Center, where the Rev. Al Sharpton declared, pre-Grammys, "There's no doubt about who is the Queen."

All that remained was for Franklin to prove herself worthy of her new designation, which presented no difficulty.

As usual, the soul-pop-gospel legend was supported by the crack battalion of her longtime conductor, H.B. Barnum -- you know it's serious when you see a bass clarinet onstage. The couple of dozen musicians warmed up the already toasty high-tech environs with a medley of hits before Franklin made her entrance, in a pale-pink satin gown and a brassy coif.

It took her about half a second to jack the diverse crowd to its feet with "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," Jackie Wilson's 1967 roof-raiser. Franklin then banked the fire and humidified her vocal cords with an intimate, thematically appropriate scat on the classic ballad "My Funny Valentine," pondering with a certain humility, "Is your figure less than Greek?"

Franklin relied less on the sky spirals of her youth than on casually jazzy phrasing toward the middle of her range, transforming her sister Carolyn's torch weeper "Ain't No Way" into a pensive abstraction. Settling down at the grand piano for Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," she trilled easily on the right end of the keyboard and laid a firm chordal hand on the left.

A couple of clear peaks stood out. The Ben E. King nugget "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)," Franklin's tribute to late Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun (who co-wrote it), rang with high-stepping spirit and deep emotion. And with a nod to singer Juanita Bynum, Franklin amplified the religious intent of "One Night With the King" into realms of slow-climbing romantic passion.

Franklin shared a family moment by bringing out her guitarist son, Teddy Richards, to twang the lowdown riff of "Chain of Fools."

While the orchestra sounded more at home lavishing lush urban soul on "Angel" than hammering the R&B; floorboards of "The House That Jack Built," it hit a righteous balance on the jolting "Think" as Franklin struck her Statue of Liberty pose and demanded "freedom!" An absence of opera material meant the diva didn't lay claim to her entire empire; nevertheless, pop, blues and jazz got their full due, as did gospel ("I came to praise the Man!") when she concluded by bringing out 31 white-robed singers for an extended ecstatic testimonial.

Franklin's normally electric crowd connection was muted by a slight distance in her demeanor. Well, it had been a long week. Or maybe you could blame the nine hot dogs she said she picked up at Pink's a few days back. "I didn't eat 'em all at once," she qualified. That's the kind of empress you can love.

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