Aretha Franklin may have had her heyday in the 1960s, but in the last years of her career she created some musical masterpieces in the unlikeliest of ways. Instead of singing songs with musicians and singers backing her up, she would accompany herself on piano, singing with all the heart, and all the voice, she possessed. It wasn't the sock-it-to-me Aretha — it was the tender, the moving, the swinging Aretha Franklin, to quote the name of an early album. Sometimes musicians would join in, but her fine keyboard work was the central instrumental element. And really, it was all she needed to make glorious music.
These moments were a heavenly balm, and a reminder that even after turning 70 years old, it's fully possible for a singer to create art that is powerful and poignant. With that in mind, here are four extraordinary performances from Aretha's later years.
You probably heard about or saw this one — after all, it has 12 million views. For a 2015 tribute to Carole King, the Queen of Soul strode onto the Kennedy Center stage wearing a fur and carrying a glittering purse (presumably stuffed with the cash from for her performance fee, as per her tradition of asking for greenbacks so she wouldn't be stiffed, a trick she reputedly learned from James Brown), before sitting at the piano and playing the opening chords to one of her and King's definitive songs, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." That voice, the voice, pours out of her, deeper than in its heyday yet remarkably vital and somehow able to hit high notes that were often out of reach as she aged. In the audience, President Obama wipes away a tear, while the night's honoree, Carole King, appears to be ready to fly out of the balcony from sheer joy.
At Lincoln Center for a performance billed as Big Band Holidays — with Wynton Marsalis presiding over the Lincoln Center Orchestra — the Queen made the scene, again in a fur, to play and sing the German Christmas song "O Tannenbaum." She enters at 6:23 here, greeting the audience as if she were a neighbor casually dropping by. Franklin sits at a grand piano and begins crafting a rich and roaming introduction, with rumbling bass, hammering chords and delicate melody lines, before singing the traditional song in both English and German. I can only repeat what a congregant called out on the recording of her first gospel album in the 1950s, when she was just a teenager: "Listen at her!"
In the early '70s, Franklin recorded the song "My Cup Runneth Over," taken from the Broadway musical I Do! I Do! The version Aretha did was not released on any album until 2007, when it was included on Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul. Around that time, she brought the song into her concert rotation, performing it with a wistful and gentle spirit, never giving in to its potential for shmaltziness. Instead, through her it became a bold declaration of love – for a man, for her fans, for the world in which she lived. This version, from another Lincoln Center performance, is particularly rousing. One line, "We won't even notice the world growing cold," has perhaps accrued an added poignance in the light of her passing.
At a concert in Los Angeles in 2015, Aretha Franklin sang a song from her Columbia years, "If Ever I Would Leave You," taken from the Broadway musical Camelot. As with much of her Columbia work, the recording has full orchestration, a symphony of shimmering strings enveloping her youthful voice. For this latter-day rendition, she stripped away all the trappings for a simple, piano-based version (with, admittedly, an utterly unnecessary interlude of synthesized strings added along the way). Just listen to the way she lingers on the word "you" in that first line, sounding as warm and inviting as she ever has, an affirmation that the voice of Aretha Franklin will never leave us.