By Charles Layton
It must have been sometime in the winter of 1961-62. We were two soldiers on leave, exploring the mysteries and enticements of New York City for the very first time. Probably on someone’s recommendation, we sought out a place on 7th Avenue called the Village Vanguard, eager to hear some jazz. The chairs were uncomfortable, the tables were tiny and crammed together to make the most of the space, and the cover charge and liquid refreshments cost more than we could afford, forcing us to nurse our drinks all evening in spite of the waitress’s judgmental looks. It was one of those situations where you have to hang onto your glass for dear life lest the waitress scoop it away before it’s empty.
The featured artist that night played jazz piano with a heavy gospel flavor and sang with an air of authority rare in one so young (she was probably not yet 20). She had an enormous voice. I was gobsmacked by her performance. I remember writing a letter to a friend back in Texas, a fellow jazz lover, saying, “You’ve got to listen to a singer named Aretha Franklin. See if you can find any of her records.”
I don’t think I heard of her again until four or five years later, by which time she had altered her repertoire and become the “Queen of Soul.” I never hear her music now without thinking of how she sounded to me on that cold, long-ago night, as I sat huddled in that overcrowded club on 7th Avenue.
This song, a standard from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, provides a good approximation of how she sounded that night.