Aretha Franklin was thankful to be alive and was thinking about lost friends, among them Whitney Houston.
Hours after she canceled an appearance at Houston's funeral because of spasms in her legs, the "Queen of Soul" (the "undisputed" Queen, the capacity audience was reminded by the show's announcer) was quick on her feet, feisty in voice and sentimental and sassy in spirit at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night. It was the latest stop on a "greatest hits" tour featuring old favorites and, since Houston's shocking death a week ago, a tribute to the fallen singer. Franklin is close to Houston's family, and she said Houston called her "Aunt Ree."
Franklin herself was rumored a year ago to be mortally ill, hospitalized with an undisclosed illness and asking her fans worldwide to pray for her health. On Saturday, the 69-year-old looked young enough to joke about a man who had mistaken her for being in her 50s. She danced and shimmied, kicked off her heels and paced the stage barefoot, and even smirked and gave herself a couple of satisfied pats on the rear.
She looked back over a 50-year career and those who helped her along. Franklin praised the late Luther Vandross as she kicked off the R&B hit he co-wrote for her, "Get It Right." She introduced her most heartbreaking ballad, "Ain't No Way," with a brief word about her sister and the song's composer, Carolyn Franklin, who died in 1988. She sang the title from the classic Motown anthem of devotion, "You're All I Need To Get By," and two giant flat screens on opposite sides of the stage flashed a picture of one of the writers, Nick Ashford, who died last summer. Franklin then called out to Ashford's widow and songwriting partner, Valerie Simpson, among several friends and family members in attendance.
Houston's turn came during the second half of the roughly 100-minute concert, after Franklin had changed from a glittery green and silver caftan into a caftan of white and gold, and settled behind the piano and sketched out the words and melody to "I Will Always Love You." Softening Houston's all-time power ballad into a light, gospel reverie, Franklin paused to acknowledge the "homegoing" of "Nippy," Houston's nickname: More formally, "Miss Whitney Elizabeth Houston."
"She was a very fine young lady" and "one of the best, greatest singers," said Franklin, breaking back and forth between melody and spoken word, behind song and sermon. "She was giving, gave so much of herself."
"God bless you, Nippy," she concluded. "We'll always remember."
But no one, Houston included, has displaced Franklin at the top. No one would dare. Backed by a sprawl of percussionists, horns, keyboards, singers and dancers, she has absorbed and mastered so many styles, from pop and gospel to soul and jazz, that she can hold entire traditions within a single song. And she remains fearless about shaking up standards. Her breakthrough smash from 1967, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" was changed from a smoldering ballad into a bluesy vamp. Franklin worked in a few digs about womanizing into the otherwise despondent "Ain't No Way" and stretched and scatted the words to "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."
She had come to celebrate, to sell (Franklin urged the crowd, twice, to go to Walmart and buy her latest record) and to heal. "I hope that there's something I will sing, or I have sung, that will lift all of our heavy hearts today," she said near the beginning of the show.
The answer was obvious, especially after the closing numbers: an explosive "Spirit in the Dark," with Franklin leading the charge on piano; and the essential finale, "Respect," with a cameo from the Rev. Al Sharpton, who pulled off some James Brown strides, and even a few nimble steps from the Queen herself, whose heart and legs seemed to have lightened as she left the stage.