Is Aretha Franklin's 'Live at Fillmore West' One of Her Greatest Albums?

SAN FRANCISCO - FEBRUARY 1971: Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the Fillmore West in February, 1971 in San Francisco, California.
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Photo By Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When promoter Bill Graham booked the Queen of Soul for a three-night showdown at San Francisco's storied rock-and-roll hall Fillmore West, no one was sure how the crowd would respond.

"I wasn't sure how the hippies reacted to me," Aretha Franklin reflected in her 1999 autobiography. And in the words of Franklin's drummer, Bernard Purdie, "She’d been doing what you’d call Vegas-type shows. But this was a whole different audience."

But they didn't need to worry. With saxman King Curtis leading a dream team of musicians that included Billy Preston on organ, Franklin refashioned pop and rock classics in her own image, transforming the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" with stinging funk and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with a stirring call-and-response gospel section. 

Franklin kicked off each night with a roaring rendition of the Otis Redding-penned "Respect," that demanded each listener move along and pay some "r-e-s-p-e-c-t." Then on the final night of a three-night stint, Franklin made history by pulling an "impeccably dressed man" from the audience onto the stage.

That mystery man, rocking "wrap-around dark glasses" (as described The Chronicle), was no other than Ray Charles, who reportedly met Franklin for the first time earlier that day. The legends then launched into an epic 19- minute jam with "Spirit in the Dark." 

“She turned the thing into church,” Charles later recalled. “I mean, she’s on fire.”

Atlantic Records recorded the second and third nights (March 6, 7) and immortalized the convicting performances in the 1971 album Aretha Live at Fillmore West, marking Franklin's third live record and a crossover hit that glorified Franklin's name amongst young, white audiences. The album flew straight to No. 1 on Billboard's R&B chart by June that year. 

Watch her fiery performance here. 

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