Celebrating the Queen of Soul at the Sag Harbor American Music Festival

Aretha Franklin

Danyel Fulton knows it when she hears it.

Whether it’s soft and subdued, or full-voiced and commanding, Aretha Franklin’s voice is unmistakable — and its powerful, genuine, distinct sound has lived within Fulton for as long as she can remember.

“Her voice is such a staple and constant in our culture,” she said. “You hear it everywhere, in everything, and through everyone. There’s no guessing who she is when you hear her, either.”

First earning her stripes singing gospel in the Baptist church, Franklin’s rise to stardom cemented her as the “Queen of Soul” by the end of the 1960s — not only because of her voice, but for what she represented. With anthems “Respect” and “Think,” she showed young African-American girls what was possible, including Fulton.

“Whether we’re aware of it or not, as singers, we learned from and emulated her,” the Brooklyn native said. “Her musicality was both effortless and purposeful. Every ad-lib, and phrase was inspired. I aspire to be that free and connected every time I’m blessed to entertain.”

On Thursday, September 28,  Fulton will help kick off the ninth annual Sag Harbor American Music Festival with a tribute to the Queen of Soul herself, alongside the HooDoo Loungers and Pastor Bryon Preston & the Life Singers, for a concert that covers three distinct dimensions of Franklin’s life, according to historian Joe Lauro, who performs with the New Orleans Mardi Gras-style party band.

Danyel Fulton

“The festival is about American music and we all owe a lot of inspiration to some of the people who came before us, and you honor them in such ways — by performing their music with sincerity and authenticity,” he said. “I mean, we’re not a tribute band. It’s not a tribute show like the guys that put the Beatles wigs on, embarrassing themselves playing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ It’s not like that. This is a celebration of Aretha Franklin’s music.”

The concert begins with Franklin’s gospel roots, the bedrock of her entire career. Born in 1942, she was the daughter of Clarence LaVaughn “C. L.” Franklin, a Baptist minister and activist who would become known as the man with the “million-dollar voice.” Watching her talent develop, he became the manager of his daughter when she was 12 years old, and she would tag along on his “gospel caravan” tours, performing where she could.

By age 16, Franklin went on tour with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and she would ultimately sing at his funeral in 1968.

“Her father took her around everywhere,” Lauro said. “She was like a child wonder and he was one of the great inspirational preachers of the day. She came from that whole world. She knew the whole gospel and all the people involved, all the stars. Her first years, up to the 1960s, were singing in church, and we have a wonderful choir that will be doing music from the era.”

The gospel years will transition into stripped-down show tunes and standards — performed by  Fulton — followed by the songs that made Franklin famous, including “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Think,” “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” with a finale featuring all of the musicians on stage together.

“Aretha integrated pop music with the roots of jazz and gospel, and gave it to all of us as kids, and we were hearing something that was unusual,” Lauro said. “This is in no way putting her down as a performer, but most of this deep gospel music is really foreign to white people, honestly. The Sunday church service, the singing, it’s a totally African-American experience.”

Lauro first heard true gospel music inside a black church in New Orleans. And in the choir of 50 singers, one soloist after another would “raise the roof on the place,” he said, “and you would not believe that this person wasn’t famous — and she was just singing in the local church.”

“Aretha was extraordinary, but not unusual — extraordinary in that she was that much more passionate and powerful and musical than some of these people, but she wasn’t the only person,” he said. “There are so many of these people, to this day, that can sing with this sort of passion and conviction. It’s just that, for white audiences, they’re just not used to that sort of intensity. What Aretha did was she brought this thing to a lot of people that would not normally have heard that type of music.”

In 1987, Franklin became the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she used her platform to shine a light on struggle for civil rights and the women’s rights movement.

“I’m inspired by how bold and intentional she was in her music, as well as her activism,” Fulton said. “I remember hearing the story about how she stood her ground when offering to bail Angela Davis out of jail. Publicly going against your parent in ministry, as well as the government, was no doubt a dangerous risk. However, she felt that because she was afforded the means to make a difference, she had a responsibility in doing so. What an example she led.”

During the 16thannual American Music Masters concert, “Lady Soul: The Life and Music of Aretha Franklin,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored the singer in 2011, and Lauro was tasked with compiling musical footage from his collection, Historic Films Archive, to be shown during the event.

“I’m backstage and, at a certain point in the show, the screen comes down and they’re showing a clip I had provided of Aretha, in her 20s, singing ‘Dr. Feelgood,’ one of her great songs,” Lauro recalled. “And my son, who’s standing next to me, nudges me and goes, ‘Dad! Look!’ And standing right next to him is Aretha. So the three of us are standing together and she’s watching herself from the side of the stage, looking at the screen, at herself sitting at the piano singing ‘Dr. Feelgood,’ 1968.”

No more than 15 minutes later, the concert stopped and a piano was wheeled on stage.

“She was not supposed to perform, but she got up there and she did about a half hour solo at the piano,” Lauro said. “I like to think that showing that clip inspired her and the reaction that the clip got inspired her to go out on that stage, that night, and do that performance.”

“Oh my God, it was just,” he said with a nostalgic sigh. “It couldn’t have been better. She was the queen, the Queen of Soul, and the queen is allowed to change her mind.”

“Queen of Soul – A Musical Tribute to Aretha Franklin,” featuring the Hoodoo Loungers, Pastor Bryon Preston & the Life Singers, and Danyel Fulton, will kick off the ninth annual Sag Harbor American Music Festival on Thursday, September 26, at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $35. For more information, visit sagharbormusic.org.