The late Aretha Franklin’s hits spanned generations, appealing to Baby Boomers and millennials alike. And while it’s been decades since the “Queen of Soul” called New York City home, her countless performances made for concert memories — and impromptu sightings — fans will never forget.
“Being in a small room with her was the kind of thing that made your insides shake,” says Elanit Linder, a former Manhattan resident, and big-time Franklin fan. She first met the famed artist 15 years ago while setting up for a private midtown party arranged by the late event designer Robert Isabelle.
“It was someone’s birthday party and Aretha was performing in a small restaurant that couldn’t have held more than 50 people,” she recalls. “She walked in with an entourage and had them turn up the heat because it was too cold for her voice. I happened to be in the hallway during her soundcheck and sat down and almost cried. It was like being in the presence of an angel, a legend.”
Or, a queen.
The 18-time Grammy winner, who died Thursday at the age of 76, lived an “extraordinary life and career” and “earned the love — and yes, the respect of millions,” Mike Duggan, the mayor of her hometown of Detroit said in a statement.
Franklin first moved to New York City and signed with Columbia Records in the early ’60s, a few years before her monstrous hit “Respect” became an unofficial anthem for the women’s and civil rights movements. She spent nearly a decade in the city before moving to California in the ’70s, and back to Detroit in ’82.
Her career rise — with 20 total R&B chart-topping hits, like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — brought her back to the streets of the city several times, gracing the famed stage of The Apollo. In 1971, the Harlem theater’s marquee dubbed the venue Franklin’s second home.
Thursday, crowds gathered outside the venue, dropping flowers on her “Walk of Fame” plaque.
“[This is] definitely a sad day for music,” says Dylan Jones, a Brooklyn resident. Jones first saw Franklin perform during the 1998 debut “VH1 Divas Live” concert at the Beacon Theater and has only one word to describe her: “spellbinding.”
Nadine Lubka, 52, of Harlem, said Franklin was a towering figure in the neighborhood.
“She contributed to the depth and richness of Harlem’s life and culture,” she said outside the Apollo.
Juliette Joseph, a Daytona Beach, Florida, resident on vacation in the city, joined her daughter in driving from Brooklyn to the Apollo to pay her respects.
“This was her legacy. Everything that she stood for, everything that she accomplished will be remembered here.”
“It’s a shame. We don’t have singers like this anymore,” said Waymond Scullark, 40, of Harlem. “This,” he added, pointing to the Walk of Fame, “is turning into a graveyard.”
Franklin’s final large-scale performance took place in the city, at Cathedral of St. John the Divine during the November 2017 Elton John AIDS Foundation concert.
Entertainment photographers who snapped pictures of Franklin on the city streets several times in her later years, note she became known for her radiant personality that never faded with age.
“The first time, I was in NYC right in front of the Plaza Hotel in 2010,” photographer Hughe Dillon, 55, recalls. “She was just out for a walk, she told me. Pleasant as can be.”
“I told her I was a big fan, but my father, Hugh Dillon Jr., grew up on her music and he brought a lot of you to his life. He had died a few years earlier. She said, ‘He’s here with us. Bless him,’ ” he adds.
Another 2010 encounter with the queen (involving pajamas) stands out in his mind: “She was returning to her hotel, wearing her bathrobe and bunny slippers,” he says. “She signed [autographs] for fans, but asked that I not take a photo as she was tired. I complied.”
Manny Carabel, a celebrity photographer for Getty Images, was hired to cover the artist’s 74th birthday at the Ritz-Carlton in 2016. “She welcomed me to her birthday party and said, “Feel free to take whatever pictures you want, just make me look good.’ I said, ‘You are the Queen of Soul, you will always look good!’ ”
Franklin battled health issues in the years before her death and announced her retirement from the business in August 2017, citing doctor’s orders. Her publicist later revealed she’d been battling advanced pancreatic cancer and was reportedly transferred into hospice care in her final days.
Two days before her death, a tribute to the singer appeared in the Franklin Street subway station in TriBeCa. “Say a little prayer” and “Aretha makes me feel like a natural woman” stickers were tacked onto the steps of the station’s entrance.
With Ivan Pereira