Every year when March rolls around, music fans in New York City know to expect a major concert benefit being presented by City Winery’s Michael Dorf. This year is no exception as Mar. 6 brings The Music Of Aretha Franklin at Carnegie Hall, the 14th installment of Michael’s Music Of series. Among the artists slated to perform the works of the Queen Of Soul are Melissa Etheridge, Kenny Loggins, Glen Hansard, Rhiannon Giddens, G. Love, Sam Moore, CeeLo Green, Todd Rundgren, Antibalas, Allen Stone, Taj Mahal, Living Colour, and Bettye LaVette. Arguably the most prominent and impressive lineup ever assembled by Michael and team.
Downtown had the pleasure of speaking with six of the evening’s performers: Kenny Loggins, Sam Moore, Ron Pope, G. Love, Ruthie Foster, and Richard Thompson. Few artists can bring entertainers of all genres together like Aretha Franklin, and this Q&A helps explain why that is. 100% of the net proceeds from the Mar. 6 event are given to music education organizations for underprivileged youth, including Young Audiences New York, Little Kids Rock, and Church Street School Of Music; well over $1 million has been raised through prior events.
More on Michael Dorf and his event series can be found at www.musicof.org. Those looking to catch a public dress rehearsal of the Carnegie Hall event can try finding tickets via the City Winery website.
Do you remember the first time you heard Aretha Franklin? Or at least the first song by her you’d heard?
Kenny Loggins: “Natural Woman” — I was in high school.
Sam Moore: I’ve known Aretha since she was a teenager playing piano for her father the famous Reverend C.L. Franklin. That’s around 60 years ago.
Ron Pope: There was never a time in my life before Aretha. Her voice was always there. I remember singing along to “Respect” as a really little kid. Sometimes I’d sing lead, sometimes I’d sing the background parts. I remember when I learned that she was singing the word “propers” in that song; when I was little, I always thought it was “popcorn.”
Ruthie Foster: I grew up listening to Aretha. Her gospel recordings with her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, were a mainstay in our house when I was a little girl.
G. Love: I’m thinking that I surely grew up listening to the sounds of Aretha on the radio my whole life. I do remember my parents being crazy about the soundtrack for this movie The Big Chill, and I’m pretty sure “Natural Woman” was on that cassette. They wore it out! As I grew up and into music my Uncle Billy turned me on to Booker T & The MGs, who were the Stax Records backing band and recorded many of Aretha’s hits with her. So I always loved Aretha and the sounds behind her.
Richard Thompson: It would have been “Respect.” I was at school over in London, and that must have been 1964? It’s the first record of Aretha’s that got much airplay.
Do you have a favorite Aretha song?
Kenny Loggins: “What A Fool Believes” — I totally went to school on her reinvention.
Sam Moore: Well, she won the Grammy for my song “Hold On I’m Coming” in 1981, and I’ve stolen her arrangement done by the brilliant Arif Martin for my live performances. I recorded one of her big hits written by Ahmet Ertegun, “Don’t Play That Song For Me,” and I’ve heard her performing it and her shows with my arrangement.
Ron Pope: “Baby, I Love You” is my very favorite song of Aretha’s; it has everything I want in a record. Her lead vocal is lights out, the harmonies she sings with her sisters are interesting and effective, Jimmy Johnson’s guitar is so damn smooth driving it all along, they have King Curtis and those horn parts that feel iconic but are still understated. The recording is absolutely everything. The Swampers and King Curtis!? Unreal! And it’s like two minutes long! You want to explain to someone why she’s the Queen? Play them that!
Ruthie Foster: Her rendition of “Amazing Grace” is my favorite!
G. Love: I think my favorite is “I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You)” — just the dynamic of the performance and the groove hits me!
Richard Thompson: I love her version of “You Are My Sunshine.”
Where was the first gig you ever played in New York City? What do you remember about it?
Sam Moore: Oh my goodness. The Apollo Theater on the package as an opening act in 1963, I believe. I remember legendary female comedian Moms Mabley telling me, after Dave [Prater] and I sort of phoned in a performance because there were very few people in the house at the time we went on, “not to be lazy on stage and to get out there, even if there’s only three people in the audience and give them the show they paid their money to see! Do your best don’t ever shortchange the house, even if it’s just the waiters and waitresses at a club you’re playing as your career progresses.” Her words have never left me since and every time I walk out on stage I strive to give the audience 100% or more of me and my vocal gift.
Ron Pope: My first real gig in New York was at The Bitter End when I was about 19 or 20, playing with my band The District. I remember feeling excited. Here I was, just some kid from Georgia playing a stage Bob Dylan had been on! Lots of our friends came out since it was our first show — and we begged them. Afterwards, Paul and Kenny from The Bitter End were so complimentary of the band, and we established a relationship that put us back on that stage at least 200 times over the next few years. No matter how many times I go to that club, I’ll never forget that first night.
Ruthie Foster: My first gig in New York City was at a place called Terra Blues, just off Bleecker and Thompson in The Village. The blues artist — and actor — Guy Davis was playing and took a break, I talked to him for awhile about music and told him that I played and sang to and had just moved from Texas. He let me play during his breaks that night. I had a gig two nights a week at that venue for three years afterwards!
Kenny Loggins: Two months before I played for the first time in New York City, I was there as a tourist. When I walked past Carnegie Hall, I said to my girlfriend, “Maybe someday I’ll get to play there.” Ironically, two months later I played there with Jimmy Messina as the opening act for Delaney & Bonnie and Billy Preston.
G. Love: My first gig, aside from busking in Washington Square Park a couple times in 1991 on a road trip down from Skidmore College — where I went to school for a year — would’ve been The Grand for our showcase for the New Music Seminar. I remember the crowds were a bit tougher than the amorous crowds we had achieved at the Irish pubs in Boston but we kept our head down and played that shit proper. Right after that things started clicking and we played Brownies, Cafe Sinead, The Bottom Line and CBGBs Gallery, where we scored our first deal with Epic Records in 1993.
Richard Thompson: It was the Fillmore East, 1970. The bill was something like Fairport Convention — my band — Savoy Brown and Traffic. Bill Graham was at the side of the stage as we came off, and said, “Wow! I’ve never seen that before.” We were feeling quite pleased with ourselves, till he added: “I’ve never seen a band go onstage not knowing what the second number was going to be!”
Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York?
Sam Moore: There are so many great ones. I haven’t really been in New York a lot in the past couple of years.
Ron Pope: Awash on 6th Street, for sure. As I tour, I try to find Ethiopian food that good all over the world, but it never stacks up to Awash! When I lived in The Village, I’d eat there at least twice a week. When I come home to New York from the road, that’s the first place I want to eat.
Ruthie Foster: I recently visited and played New York City and had a great experience at a wonderful restaurant called Khe-Yo in TriBeCa, that’s become my favorite! It’s has a lot of Laotian-inspired dishes which are great for sharing with friends.
Kenny Loggins: I’m excited to try the Chef Andrew Carmellini‘s newest restaurant.
G. Love: That’s a tough one, but I sure love Joseph Leonard’s and The Diner in Brooklyn.
Richard Thompson: I love Avra, the Greek seafood restaurant. I think it’s at 48th and Lex.
What’s coming up for you besides this show at Carnegie Hall?
Sam Moore: On Thursday night, the 9th, I will be at the Beacon Theater with a bunch of amazing artists at the God’s Love We Deliver fundraiser, and then I’m going to Scottsdale, Arizona the weekend of Mar. 18 at the Celebrity Fight Night tribute to a dear friend who we lost last year, Muhammad Ali. I’m also in the studio recording an album project actually a couple of album projects with the award-winning and most amazing producer, an artist Rudy Perez. Rudy has an album launching in the next couple of weeks, and the single from that album is a duet I was humbled to participate on, a little song written by Charlie Chaplin called “Smile.”
Ron Pope: I will be back in October to play at Terminal 5. I can’t wait for that one; I’ve never played there but I’ve seen so many incredible bands on that stage.
Ruthie Foster: I have U.S. and European tours coming up with my new CD on the horizon! Joy Comes Back is the title; it’s a celebration of all the transitions in my life, love and music since my last recording.
Kenny Loggins: My new children’s book: a reimagining of Footloose in which Jack, now a zookeeper, secretly lets all the zoo animals out of their cages to dance under a full moon.
G. Love: I’m writing this in Byron Bay, Australia, where I performed last night at the Byron Bay Surf Festival. Next stop is NYC, and the day after Carnegie Hall, I fly to Phoenix to start a month-long West Coast tour with my band Special Sauce. The original trio is still going strong closing in on 25 years!
Richard Thompson: I’m out the whole of April, and I’ll be fairly local a couple of times — Tarrytown on Apr. 14 and Port Washington Apr. 19. I’m also releasing two acoustic records, Acoustic Classics 2 and Acoustic Rarities, probably in May.
Finally, any last words for the kids?
Richard Thompson: Listen to Aretha! There is such a thing as musical intelligence. Her voice is at the service of the song, not the other way ’round. She doesn’t show off, she uses her extraordinary vocal gifts sparingly to emphasize the emotional peaks of the songs.
Sam Moore: I actually working with my wife on a project with Florida International University developing curriculum to teach kids grades K through 12 the great and rich histories, legacies and contributions of the amazing American-born talented musical artists of past decades and generations who brought — to not only American culture — but the world the gift of music all of the joy it brings.
Also, my great-niece Courtney Trice is going to be duetting with me at Carnegie Hall. Not bragging or prejudice, she is amazing! I am so proud to have the pleasure and joy of introducing her to the world the right way and I want to thank Michael Dorf and his entire organization for affording me the opportunity to pay honor and tribute to my “Ree Ree” and do my portion of her salute justice with Courtney and her powerful vocal abilities at my side performing my duet version from my Overnight Sensational album of “Don’t Play That Song.”
Ron Pope: 10 years ago, I sang on the subway platform to make a living, and now I’m playing at Carnegie Hall. Whatever you decide to do with your life, stay focused and do it with your whole heart. You’ll end up where you’re supposed to be.
Ruthie Foster: My words for the kids would be to stay true to who you really are and when times get tough remember that music is a healer. It’s definitely been my light!
G. Love: Be original, be passionate, bring enthusiasm, energy and love. Make a connection and expect magic to happen. Leave it all onstage every night and stay on the hustle. It’s about the journey in music there’s no top to the mountain — you just gotta keep on climbing and enjoy the view! The best thing about music is that every night can be your best show ever, and that’s what I say the minute I wake up on show days, “Tonight I will play my greatest show ever.” Then I beat it the next night.
Kenny Loggins: Follow your dreams. They will always take you somewhere fun.