It was December of 1988 and thanks to hits like “Freeway of Love,” Aretha Franklin was cruising on into the better-than-ever street of a comeback. I was two months into my first job as an associate editor at the monthly city magazine in Atlantic City and the Queen of Soul was headed in our direction to play her first-ever shows at Trump Castle.
Her face adorned our December cover (we somehow had received permission to use Andy Warhol’s portrait, his final album cover artwork before his death), but Aretha declined to grant us an audience for an interview. Having never been turned down for a celebrity interview before in my entire professional career now numbering in weeks (I mean, the recently reunited Tony Orlando and Dawn had said yes, hello!), I thought our editors would kill the story. Then I got to see how a smart cover story can be artfully crafted around your subject on deadline, even without an interview.
And despite her face being plastered on the cover of a magazine in a glowing story placed in practically every hotel room in Atlantic City, Aretha’s brother Cecil (who was her manager at the time) became enraged by a random biographical detail in the story about their sister Carolyn. So, he rang up the magazine. It was my first exposure (but, remarkably, not my last) to an ordained minister referring to journalists with a phrase that strongly implies having intimate relations with the person who birthed you.
Still, nothing could dampen my excitement at seeing the Queen live for the first time. Like every other human who possessed the power of hearing, I had been an immediate fan ever since I first heard her voice, mixed in with my favorite disco hits beaming across the bridge from Philadelphia soul station WDAS-FM into my transistor radio in South Jersey.
I didn’t even mind the standard-issue carding my wet-behind-the-ears mug guaranteed any time I got within 100 feet of a casino gaming floor. Seated one table and an aisle from the stage, I was transfixed as Aretha made her entrance in an Egyptian-inspired gown with a flowing white train and carried behind her by eight men.
She did all of the classics from her iconic Atlantic Records period, along with her career’s second act — the Arista Records MTV era hits, including “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?,” “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” and “I Knew You Were Waiting.”
The entire show built to a crowd rousing finale of “Freeway of Love,” complete with a tightly choreographed dance troupe gyrating with Goodyear tires. So, I became alarmed when mid-number, Aretha, clad in a skin-tight curvy sequined gown, quickly shimmied off stage — backward.
The band played on as her dancers, confused, continued rolling tires to each other. From my press seat vantage point, I could see into the wings of the stage. And the Queen of Soul’s magnificent (but very bare) derrière being sewn back into that skin-tight gown by two needle-clutching, increasingly anxious assistants.
Two choruses later, Aretha arrived back on stage to thunderous applause and finished the number. Wiping her brow, she leaned into the microphone and conceded, “I might have to cut back on those late-night trips to Taco Bell!”
As the final chords echoed through the casino showroom, she bowed before us. Now draped in her signature robe and crown, we dutifully stood and wildly hailed our Queen.
For almost thirty years, I’ve carried that evening’s valuable life lessons with me.
Even when you’re at your most vulnerable, remain confident and true to yourself.
And always, always, have a needle and thread at the ready, just in case the designer sequins in your life unexpectedly give way.