‘Divas Live’ Salutes Aretha Franklin

Backstreet Boys, Kid Rock, Janet Jackson help honor soul great.

Divahood is understood two ways these days. Last year’s installment of VH1′s
“Divas Live” was a tribute to Miss Diana Ross, and the fact that Ross exerted
her legendary difficultness (the show had to be taped instead of broadcast
live) was testament to the more recent definition.

Tuesday night’s “Divas Live” tribute to Aretha Franklin, on the other hand,
demonstrated the more venerable one. Which is to say, the event was a
testament to a sheer, unfiltered vocal gift. Not once in a 45-year career has
Franklin yielded the distinction of being the greatest American singer alive.
This was the rationale for the star-studded gala at Radio City Music Hall,
and Franklin knocked it out of the ballpark from the moment she opened her
mouth. At no point did her microphone seem necessary.

There she was, clad in a curious white unitard, striding from the back of the
stage to the front shortly after 9 p.m. as dancers ponied and shimmied about
to the blare of a full band and orchestra. Franklin detonated Otis Redding’s
“I Can’t Turn You Loose” (of course she covered Redding to epochal effect in 1967 via “Respect”). As the song went into gospel double time and she volleyed one powerful extemporization — “hey!,” “yeah-ah!!” — after another, it was clear this was not one of her off nights.

After the obligatory opening credits, the band lit into the choppy guitar intro of “Chain of Fools.” Franklin summoned the Backstreet Boys — actually just Kevin Richardson, A.J. McLean and Howie Dorough — who sauntered onstage to add superfluous “who, who”s.

Janet Jackson arrived to deafening applause, then humbly reminded everyone that “a true diva doesn’t demand your attention, but commands your attention.” With that a short film, narrated by Oprah Winfrey, ran through Franklin’s career — from Detroit-bred gospel prodigy (her father, Rev. C. L.
Franklin, was one of the more esteemed preachers of the ’50s and ’60s) to her enduring stint as Queen of Soul, aided by the production acuity of Jerry Wexler in the ’60s, Curtis Mayfield in the ’70s and Lauryn Hill in the ’90s.

Jackson brought Franklin back onstage for “Ain’t No Way,” the final song from
1968′s Lady Soul. With nods to the songwriter, her sister Carolyn,
to “cousin Brenda” who provided operatic punctuation, and to R&B songwriting
great Nick Ashford, she indicated that if her voice has lost the knife-edge
precision of 32 years ago, it has gained a nearly unprecedented richness.

Nuyorican star Marc Anthony began a salsa number and was joined by Celia
Cruz, the Latin world’s Franklin analogue. It was unclear from this performance what Cuban music of any stripe had to do with Franklin’s legacy (other than Franklin’s stated “sisterhood” with the Queen of Salsa), but Cruz needn’t be properly contextualized to be appreciated for the monument she is.

Next up was Angie Harmon, who reckoned, by way of introducing neo-soulstress Jill Scott, that Scott was to some budding singer what Franklin was to Scott — and what Dinah Washington was to Franklin. Then Scott, who waxed an eloquent meditation on the Queen in Sunday’s New York Times, entered the stage. With her debt to Franklin clear in her vocal stylings, Scott nailed “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)” and her own “A Long Walk.”

Sigourney Weaver suggested from the balcony that Franklin says what many
women can only think. And again Franklin arrived onstage, now in a scarlet
gown and again the eye in a storm of dancers hurtling to and fro. She
counseled womanhood itself against ill-advised romantic associations via, of course, a high-powered “Think.”

Freshly anointed Regis Philbin sidekick Kelly Ripa introduced Nelly Furtado,
the Canadian pop thrush, who tried to invest her own “I’m Like a Bird” with
somewhat ill-conceived melismas.

More successful in achieving “soul power” liftoff was Mary J. Blige,
introduced by alleged natural woman Pamela Anderson. Yonkers’ favorite
daughter turned in a fine Franklin-redolent tune before trading verses and
shouts with Franklin on “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” Blige tried
valiantly to keep up, but while she’s a natural woman, she was duetting with
a force of nature, one who big-upped both Ed Bradley and Billy Dee Williams in
the middle of the tune.

Introduced by “Will & Grace” star Eric McCormack, Franklin then joined a blue-chip jazz band but didn’t sing as much as exhort and kibitz (“Shut up!,” “Talk that stuff!”) with trumpet great Clark Terry, as he lapsed from actual words into delightful scatting. “Bill Cosby would love that,” she effused as Terry let loose errant syllables. Drummer Roy Haynes, bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist James Carter and guitarist Russell Malone each took brief solos on the bluesy romp. (Franklin introduced Carter as Terry began his solo, but it’s her night, right?)

Dorough, Richardson and McLean reappeared to say a few words about VH1′s Save the Music charity, which seeks to maintain public-school music programs nationwide and which the event benefited.

Four principal actresses from “The Sopranos” — Lorraine Bracco, Aida
Turturro, Drea de Matteo and Edie Falco — next set the scene for Franklin’s reprise of her 1998 Grammy turn on Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” Just as she did then, subbing for an ill Luciano Pavarotti, Franklin invested a rich,
uniquely American air to the aria.

Following an introduction by Renee Zellweger, the event’s pacing then became completely schizophrenic as Franklin began a faithful rendition of “Rock Steady” only to herald a longhair bounding from the back of the hall. “I’ve seen him before,” she cried, as none other than Kid Rock clambered onstage to bust a rhyme regarding the ineffable greatness of Detroit. His final thought? “I’m sorry Miss Jackson/ But thank you Miss Franklin.” With that, he took Franklin’s arm and both exited.

Gospel is clearly Franklin’s home idiom and, accompanied by New Orleans
shouter Bishop Paul Morton and the New Jersey Mass Choir, she left no stop unpulled on on “Precious Memories.” It cemented the opinion that her most
incandescent moments have been in that genre: She sang at Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial and her 1972 opus Amazing Grace (which included
“Precious Memories”) might be her most powerful single album. After that, her
energy flagging, the customary “Respect” seemed a bit rote.

It was time to take it home: All the performing guests (save Marc Anthony)
lined up to back the Queen’s 1985 hit “Freeway of Love.” Lo and behold, Stevie Wonder arrived to add some slightly audible backing vocals.

There was no “I’ve Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” no “Something He Can Feel.” But no one present or watching at home could possibly
misunderstand what a diva is in the best sense of the term. And that was the undeniable achievement of this tribute to the greatest living American singer.

(VH1′s parent company, Viacom, also owns Sonicnet.)