In February of 1971, Aretha Franklin did a three-night stand at the Fillmore West. The opening act, who also backed up Aretha on her sets, was King Curtis and his band, which included such stalwarts as Cornell Dupree and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie … Billy Preston was there, as well. Plus Aretha herself on electric piano. There are stories about these shows that Aretha was worried her music wouldn’t go over well with the Fillmore audience. Whatever … she won them over, no question. She was 28 years old.
There are three basic recorded versions of those shows. Live at Fillmore West was the official release of King Curtis’ contributions; it was released later in ‘71, just a week before the King was murdered. Aretha Live at Fillmore West was also released in 1971, and that was the version most of us listened to for the next 30+ years. Aretha’s performance tended towards the excessive (not necessarily a bad thing in her case), with some odd song selections that appear to be meant to connect with the hippie audience (as if her voice wasn’t enough all on its own). The seeming highlight of that album was “Spirit in the Dark”, at least its reprise, when Aretha brought out Ray Charles to sing and play along. It’s an amazing moment, but the truth is, the best part is the introduction of her surprise guest … the music is mostly an aimless jam.
In 2005, a limited-edition 4-disc box set offered the most complete version yet of those legendary nights, with Aretha and Curtis’ sets all together at last.
My personal favorite track from all of this is '”Dr. Feelgood”. She is indeed over the top on this one, and I have never been able to get enough … forty years of listening hasn’t dampened my love for it.
Now, after all these years, a video has surfaced. It’s extremely lo-fi, but it will do. It’s amazing to see things we’ve only heard in the past. When Aretha and Ray Charles and King Curtis are all busting loose on a 25-minute version of “Spirit in the Dark”, well, actually, it’s still mostly an aimless jam, but seeing them together is amazing, just the same.
And we get “Dr. Feelgood”. This might not be the exact version from the original album (they had three shows to choose from, after all). But I’ll take it. It lacks the concise perfection of “Respect”, but this makes as good a case as any for Aretha as the greatest female singer in the history of rock and roll music.