Monday, 24 June 2024

CyberSoulMan: Memories of Aretha, and other related Soulbits

T. Watts at the KPFZ microphone. Courtesy photo.


Some of you may know that the pursuit of the bliss of Soul music impassioned my formative years. It made a very constrictive era tolerable. My dear mother took me to see Chubby Checker and a host of other twistin’ rock and rollers at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. That was in1960. The die was cast.

I saw James Brown in his prime several times, twice at what used to be known as the Oakland Auditorium, once at Winterland in San Francisco. I also saw J.B. here in Lake County when he appeared here last. It was a good show. His feet were still fast. But only in eight second spurts. It was no comparison to the nonstop, frenetic, Godfather-getdown on it action of yesteryear.

On my Junior Prom night, we drove to San Francisco’s Basin Street West to see Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. They were good. Smokey was my favorite artist at the time. But the opening act, the late great Tammi Terrell, simply blew Smokey and the Miracles away. She showed the audience every dance that was happening in these United States. She was somethin’!

I’m getting ahead of myself here, but can’t help remembering seeing the legendary Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton at the Julia Morgan Theater in Berkeley just a short month before she passed away at a Los Angeles boarding home. She came on stage using a walker for mobility. She gave an outstanding performance and was not to be messed with. She had a drunk thrown out of the venue. Don’t get it twisted, but she reminded me of my grandfather. I was shocked. It was like a message from beyond.

I had opportunities to see both Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix. Incredulously, I spurned both chances. Redding played the Bay Area shortly before he died. I was still in high school. Some friends had a free ticket. I declined for some strange reason. It was probably a case of puppy love or a variation thereof. I was so sad when he died.

I was in Oregon in the late ’60s when Hendrix returned from England to his hometown of Seattle a huge international star. Some friends invited me but I declined. Somehow, I hadn’t yet discovered or understood what was indeed possible with the power of Soul. That was the night the Seattle authorities pulled the plug on Jimi as he played “The Star Spangled Banner.” By the time he died I understood. I was sad again.

I did, however, see a very pregnant Aretha Franklin in Portland in ’68 or ’69. Lady Soul drove ‘em nuts. The crowd went so crazy the show was abruptly stopped. I remember a phalanx of Portland police lifting Aretha high in the air and using a “flying wedge” through the crowd to get her off stage. At least they were concerned for Aretha’s safety. They knocked a lot of folks to the ground though.

The next time I saw Aretha Franklin was at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West in 1971. As I recall it was advertised that she would be recording a live album but I might be wrong on that. Maybe they didn’t advertise that fact. Anyway, Aretha tore the roof off again. She couldn’t help it. She was at the top of her game and the band she had that night was beyond belief.

Amazingly enough, I still possess my journal from 1971 and I hereby gleefully quote the young CyberSoulMan:

“She had the baddest band I’ve ever seen. King Curtis (musical director) with the Memphis Horns and the Kingpins rhythm section consisting of Cornell Dupree on guitar, Jerry Jermott, bass, Bernard 'Pretty' Purdie, drums, Pancho Morales, conga drums, Truman Thomas, electric piano and Billy Preston, organ. The background vocals were handled by the Sweethearts of Soul. Of course Aretha played piano too.”

The songs released on the album include “Respect,” “Love The One You’re With,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Make It With You,” “Don’t Play That Song,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Spirit In The Dark” and “Reach Out And Touch.”

Aretha and The Sweethearts of Soul sang with passion and power. The Fillmore was filled to capacity with hippies and hipsters, black, white and in between. We were yet holdovers from the Summer of Love. Aretha’s voice touched us in our heart of hearts. We felt it in the depths of our being and screamed our approval in joyous harmony.

But wait. When Aretha seemingly ends the show with “Spirit In the Dark” and plaintively implores of the crowd, can she move with the spirit, can she move with the spirit, CAN SHE MOVE WITH THE SPIRIT, she leaves the stage.

Hold it. She’s coming back to the stage. Jesus, on her arm is RAY CHARLES! It’s *&%$#in’ RAY CHARLES! It’s pandemonium in the Fillmore. They launch into a reprise of “Spirit In The Dark.” Papa Ray takes the keyboards and launches an improvisational vamp.

“Wait a minute. Listen to this. I got one mo’ thang I gotta say. When Aretha sings, can you feel the spirit.

“YES,” we scream. The crowd is one. The spirit and the crowd are one. Ray rises from the piano and is led off the stage.

“More!” we scream.

“Ray Charles,” says Aretha. “The Right Reverend Ray.”

“More! More!”

Now Aretha is preaching.

“Ladies and gentlemen, before we leave, I’d like to say before we leave that you have been much more than I could have ever expected. I’d like to leave you singin” ...


Many of us in the crowd are holding hands.

As I end this, jolted by the realization that’s it’s round midnight and I need to get this in to the editor, I’m struck by what a powerful memory that is. I’m also moved that Aretha’s instruction inside her sermonette to reach out and touch still applies today. More urgently than ever. Universally.

Keep prayin’, keep thinkin’ those kind thoughts!


Upcoming cool event:

Calling For Light. A Spring Concert of Poetry and Music. Carolyn Hawley, piano, Chopin and original works. Accompaniment to poetry. T. Watts, accompaniment on trumpet. Lake County Poets LaureateMary McMillan, Sandra Wade, Carolyn Wing Greenlee, James Bluewolf and Jim Lyle. Sunday, March 15, 3 p.m. Galilee Lutheran Church, 8860 Soda Bay Road, Kelseyville. Tickets $10 in advance at Watershed Books, Lakeport and Wild About Books, Clearlake. $15 at the door. Children attend free. A benefit for KPFZ 88.1 FM.

T. Watts is a writer, radio host and music critic. Visit his Web site at


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