Queen of Soul Reaffirms Her Title

Thursday, April 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Too often, tributes to great entertainers are given when the performer is way past their prime, unable to recreate the magic for which they are so revered.

But Aretha Franklin, now in the fourth decade of her recording career, reaffirmed why she is worthy of all the hyperbole and praise heaped upon her as she was celebrated at ``Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin'' on Tuesday night at Radio City Music Hall.

The VH1 special, shown live on the cable network, was its fourth annual celebration of women singers. It featured an all-star cast to pay homage to the Queen of Soul: Janet Jackson, members of the Backstreet Boys, Marc Anthony and Celia Cruz, Mary J. Blige, newcomer Nelly Furtado, and recent Grammy nominee Jill Scott among others.

But despite the array of hot talent, it was Franklin's voice - rich and deep, and as full-bodied as ever - that provided the night's most rousing moments, whether it was churning out classic hits like ``Respect'' and ``Ain't No Way'' with gospel-like fervor or recreating her dazzling performance of ``Nessun Dorma'' at the 1998 Grammy Awards.

Collaborations with Franklin were few, and for good reason - the last time she appeared on the ``Divas'' special, in 1998, her performance relegated the other performers into mere backup singers.

This time, things were more balanced. Except for the appearance of the Backstreet Boys' Howie Dorough, A.J. McLean and Kevin Richardson, who seemed out of place when they joined Franklin to sing ``Chain of Fools,'' her duet partners held their own, smart enough not to try to match Franklin note-for-note. A good example was Blige, the reigning Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, who matched Franklin's grit and emotional depth on the wrenching song, ``Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.''

Scott had the formidable task of covering Franklin's classic ``A Natural Woman,'' a difficult feat for even the most talented singer. But the R&B singer pulled it off, in part because of her stunning voice and her own sassy style, reminiscent of Franklin herself.

Perhaps the most disappointing appearance was Furtado, a breakthrough new artist whose greatest strength is her funky, eclectic songs, not her thin voice. While Furtado may count Franklin as an influence, it certainly wasn't evident as Furtado sang her hit, ``I'm Like A Bird'' in a flat performance.

Not that the music necessarily needed a soul link to move the crowd. Marc Anthony and Cruz sizzled as they sang without Franklin on the salsa number, ``Quimbara.'' The night's most bizarre pairing was Franklin with Kid Rock, but it was also one of the most fun.

One of the most entertaining moments featured Franklin with a bevy of jazz greats, including Herbie Hancock and Roy Haynes. As Franklin scatted and improvised during the number, she made it clear that there's no genre she can't master.

Unfortunately, toward the end of the night, many members of the audience proved uninterested in the gospel influence which makes Franklin the truly unique diva that she is.

As the show ran into its third hour, the all-star finale became an impromptu church session, with Franklin converting ``Freeway of Love,'' into a song in praise of Jesus Christ, even getting surprise guest Stevie Wonder into the act. But by the time she started a medley in tribute to the gospel group the Clark Sisters, attendees were streaming out of the concert hall.

For those who left, one tribute was apparently enough.