It was an odd place for an intimate concert.
On a warm summer night inside the mammoth Metrodome, a stage had been set up in a giant tent on the field where the Vikings and Twins played, with tables and chairs for 1,600 people. Wally the Beer Man was mixing martinis in center field. Guests dined on veal tenderloin with Minnesota morel mushrooms.
It was 1996, and this was the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual Symphony Ball at a monumental site suitable for the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
The greatest pop singer of all time died Thursday — Aug. 16, the same date as the deaths of the King, Elvis Presley, and the Sultan, Babe Ruth — so it’s time to tell the whole story.
Aretha had been eluding the Twin Cities for years. In 1968, at the peak of her career, she was supposed to play with the Temptations at the Minneapolis Armory. I had tickets, but the concert was canceled due to the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that week. She did make it to the Minneapolis Auditorium that year (I didn’t) but did not return to the Twin Cities until 1992.
Ever since I started writing about music in the mid-1970s, Aretha had been on my wish list for interviews, but she rarely talked to reporters. However, Chris Clouser, a VP at Northwest Airlines, which was sponsoring the Symphony Ball, promised me an audience with her backstage.
“Backstage” was actually an ad hoc, curtained-off space shoehorned into a cubbyhole on the field. The Queen’s throne was more like a massage table. A tall mirror was propped up on a band member’s empty conga case.
After giving an impassioned, living-up-to-the-legend performance in the huge, hot tent, Aretha sat backstage for nearly 20 minutes with towels and a silk shawl carefully wrapped around her glistening shoulders. A very visible piece of duct tape held up her dress strap. She sat in virtual silence, with an attendant or two, and a bodyguard stationed outside.
Somehow, the Queen of Soul didn’t seem so regal. She seemed like a Detroit homegirl, figuring out how to get by in a less-than-ideal setting with a dress that was giving her challenges and no floor fan to be found.
Then, one by one, subjects were ushered in. “My idol,” said the famously flamboyant Eiji Oue, then musical director of the Minnesota Orchestra, blowing a kiss to Aretha.
It is imperative that one treats the Queen of Soul like a queen, I remember thinking, even if she hadn’t had a hit single in nine years or a new album in five years. I found out about protocol the hard way.
Forewarned that my audience would be brief, I figured I had to ask something substantial even though it was obvious she hadn’t warmed to being interrogated. Moreover, it was hard to make much of a connection while seated in a folding chair, having to gaze up about 2 feet at the legend’s dark brown eyes.
The wrong question
Daunted but dutiful, I said, “You may be the Queen of Soul, but Whitney Houston is the queen of your record label [Arista Records]. What kind of challenge does that present for you in terms of dealing with Clive Davis?”
Davis, Arista’s CEO, was notorious for being the most hands-on record company president in the business. The point I was trying to make is that Aretha didn’t seem to get R-E-S-P-E-C-T from Davis while Whitney’s mega-sales paid the bills at Arista.
“That’s cute, isn’t it?” Aretha said, a smile spreading across her face.
Except she wasn’t happy.
“I don’t think so,” she said after she and her manager stopped chuckling. Turning to her manager, she continued, “I think he [meaning me] would like to have a wild story in the morning. Is that what that sounds like to you? Yes, it does.”
Then she addressed my question.
“Miss Houston has been referred to as the Princess of Pop. There’s only one Queen at the label. [Davis] can only do one project at a time; we all understand that.”
I tried to save face after my faux pas. Clouser said something to defuse the situation. The talk turned to an album Aretha was working on, and all her ruffled feathers were smoothed.
Her State Fair farewell
Speaking of feathers, the last time I saw the Rock Hall of Famer was at the 2014 Minnesota State Fair, where she emerged in a sparkly white gown with a feathered bottom and chiffon shawl.
She was spectacular from the get-go, nailing the high notes on her opening song, Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher,” testifying on “Until You Come Back to Me,” cooing during “Angel” and getting sassy on “Think.”
And when she got to “Chain of Fools,” she delivered that you-don’t-mess-with-Ree attitude, strutting like she was 25 years old again. You go, girl!
Aretha earned her propers with an encore of “Respect” before surprising with an interpretation of the Barbra Streisand signature, “The Way We Were.”
Then the Queen took her curtain calls, as her 19-piece band played “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Aretha thanked her crew members by name and even sang a couple lines of that Ethel Merman classic.
To paraphrase Miss Merman, there’s no singer like Aretha Franklin, no singer I know.