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REMEMBERING ARETHA

Late into the night, and long after visiting hours were closed for the day, crowds of fans were gathering outside of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit where Aretha Franklin lay in repose Tuesday and Wednesday. Across the Motor City, marquees bear messages of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. and cultural institutions are burning pink lightbulbs in honor of the icon who spent much of her life here in her hometown.

Mourners gather outside of New Bethel Baptist Church on Thursday in Detroit

The loss of this music legend, who is laid to rest on Friday, resonates deeply with those affected by her artistry, and the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra are among the ranks of those pausing to remember the woman and her voice.

Aretha performed several shows with the DSO in the late 90s: "I will never forget the day that Aretha came to Orchestra Hall,” says Randy Hawes, DSO bass trombonist since 1985. “The program looked good, with Aretha and her band set to play many of her classics and a few operatic selections, which the orchestra was curious about. Her band was larger than other guest artists: backup singers, a big rhythm section, her son on guitar, and a sizable collection of speakers to amplify everything.

“The rehearsal had more than its share of stops and starts and sound level checks. I heard later she was actually nervous about singing the Puccini arias, and she definitely held back quite a bit during rehearsal. Our trepidations about Aretha singing Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, were put to rest when she did her own version of it, putting her stamp of originality and soul into it, and the audience went nuts. She seemed to relax when that part of the concert was over and everyone loosened up.”

Aretha Franklin with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall during November 1998 [Detroit Free Press 12/1/1998] Haden McKay second row center

Haden McKay, DSO cellist since 1983, remembers the experimental nature of Aretha: “She was working with a local opera coach, Mary Callaghan Lynch. It wasn’t that she wanted to become an opera singer, but she wanted to know opera and then give it her own twist. The orchestra was intrigued to play with her because she was a local legend, but she hadn’t played much with orchestras.”

Though the concerts with Aretha were nearly two decades ago, DSO bassist Stephen Molina, orchestra member since 1976, remembers the air was electric. And the crowd went absolutely bananas. “Aretha was gracious. She really relished the opportunity to sing in our great hall, and we relished the opportunity to play with someone so significant.”

Hawes went on to say: “The moment I recall the clearest was when we went into Freeway of Love. The overhead spotlights were twirling, lighting up the audience, who were on their feet dancing and clapping. It was a sold-out concert that was unique: a local legend back performing with the hometown orchestra in the acoustically wonderful Orchestra Hall. It was loud onstage but hearing Aretha Franklin in her prime and experiencing the DSO’s brush with this iconic singer was amazing!"

Aretha, we salute you! May you rest in peace to the sound of our standing ovation.

*Aretha Franklin mural by Sintex, LaSalle Gardens, Detroit

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