August 17, 2018
As a small tribute to Aretha Franklin, this excerpt from Reach the Shining River, a novel by Kevin Stevens, writer and jazz connoisseur:
“A full house was tough on the nerves but easier to gather and please. If you knew what you were doing, and Arlene did. Had known from the beginning when, eleven years old, she sang “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in the Mount Zion church choir. Hitting the notes, yes. But plenty of singers could carry a tune. You had to get the audience involved. Start a conversation with them. You had to have soul.
Otis was at the piano, warming the crowd with a little boogie-woogie. Piney gave him the high sign and he segued into the first song.
The audience stirred, and faces turned stage left. Draymen, day laborers, housecleaners, cooks, domestics: these folks worked with their hands but knew their chord progressions. “Lady Be Good” was Arlene’s calling card – not the white-bread Fred Astaire arrangement but Bill Basie’s Kansas City version, up-tempo, swinging, with Lester Young soloing on tenor like he was making love to the long-legged gal serving drinks.
Arlene stepped into the light, singing just a shade behind the beat, her hands moving down along the sequins of her dress, from breasts to hips to thighs. It wasn’t the words that carried the soul but the ghost of Young’s saxophone, its sexy lines floating in her mind. Voices called out from the semi-darkness, filled with lust and admiration and surprise. Glasses clinked. The air was blue with cigarette smoke. Ecstasy and longing and gospel shouts. But this wasn’t church.
Listen to my tale of woe
It’s terribly sad but true
All dressed up, no place to go
Each evening I’m awfully blue.
The audience went with her from the start. Otis was just good enough. She followed with “All of Me”, “If You Were Mine” and “It’s Too Hot for Words”. Then another of her torch songs, “Body and Soul”.
My heart is sad and lonely
For you I sigh, for you dear only
Why haven’t you seen it
I’m all for you, body and soul.
Out of the lyrics he appeared. Unexpected. Looming in her mind, cool and easy, pork-pie hat pulled low over his brow and cigarette glowing between his lips. From between the lines of a song, like Young’s tenor sax.
Her heart lurched. She struggled to continue.”