Having been wowed by Patti Boulaye in last year’s production of ‘Billie and Me’, I couldn’t wait to see her new one woman show, ‘Aretha & Me’.
Tonight did not disappoint. Patti is a consummate story teller, with a wicked sense of humour, who by the end of the show had every member of the audience on their feet, dancing and singing.
Reclining against The Pheasantry’s beautiful Steinway, Patti treated us to a heartfelt version of ‘Yesterday’ – and then proceeded to talk to us about Aretha Franklin, “the greatest singer of our times”. She finds parallels, she told us, in the fact that they have both been activists, songwriters and singers, although their lives got off to considerably different starts: Aretha was born in her family home, Patti in a taxi on a ferry crossing the River Niger, as her mother tried to reach the maternity hospital in the next town.
Both women were musical from a young age, Aretha singing gospel music at her pastor father’s church and Patti singing hymns at her Catholic school. And both were the products of troubled marriages – and, tragically, lost siblings. Indeed, Patti grew up during the Biafra War and saw her father face the firing squad: “by providence”, he was saved.
“This is for mine and Aretha’s loved ones”, Patti announced, launching into a sparkling version of ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, followed by ‘Spanish Harlem’.
One of the most enjoyable elements of the evening was finding out more about both Aretha’s and Patti’s families and upbringings. Aretha’s family were heavily involved with music, while Patti was the sole performer in a family of engineers, pilots, doctors and entrepreneurs. “I was the seventh of nine children”, Patti mused – “and I was able to learn from my siblings’ mistakes”.
As she did in ‘Billie & Me’, Patti credited her incredibly strong mother for making her the woman she is today, explaining that Arit taught her how to live graciously, judge people’s characters and never to be influenced by their status or appearance.
Aretha Franklin was not so lucky. She was just ten years old when her mother died – and pregnant just two years later, “Presumably, not by the Son of a Preacher Man”, Patti cracked, before wowing us with a floor-stomping version of that very song.
The next two songs have long been favourites of mine: ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ and both suit Patti’s voice perfectly. The latter, she told us, has a special meaning to her because it is credited to slaves from West Africa, where her mother was born. “There has been so much darkness in the world”, Patti reflected. “The Holocaust, slavery, lynchings: but I’ve never forgotten that God shines a light through that darkness”.
Patti lightened the mood by returning to a subject dear to her heart: family. Explaining that Aretha Franklin’s father was a celebrity pastor with friends including Jesse Jackson, Patti divulged that her own father was a prominent politician and that she grew up surrounded by his political peers, including Patrice Lumumba. Her mother, though, did not want her daughters to be starry-eyed and, ever the pragmatist, told her children that should any adult ever touch them inappropriately, they should tell her. She Would Deal With Them.
“She was a wonder woman”, Patti recalled fondly – “and she gave us so much confidence”. Music continues to run through the family and Patti was joined by stage by her talented daughter Aret who, as well as being a lawyer, has written songs for Will Young and for Hollywood movies. She has a beautiful voice and we loved her version of ‘Wonder Woman’ and the duet that she and Patti performed of ‘Rock Steady’.
If that was impressive, the ending of the first set blew our minds, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ being followed by a thrilling version of ‘Nessun Dorma’. This was the most requested song when Patti asked her Facebook followers what they wanted her to sing tonight. I must confess that I wasn’t aware Aretha had sung it, but YouTube has since put me right.
Where the first set had intertwined some more serious moments with classic music, the second set fizzled with fun. Patti was in mischievous form as she prowled the stage – and then the auditorium – as Carmen Jones, singing ‘Dat’s Love’. Draping herself around MB, she growled “I loved playing bad” (it made his night).
What with songs by Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter (both peers of Aretha) which had the audience cheering and another two of my favourite songs, ‘At Last’ and ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, we were loving every moment of this show – and by the time we reached ‘Chain of Fools’ the stage was crowded with audience members showing off their dance moves.
‘Think’ and ‘I Will Survive’ saw everyone else in the audience on their feet, roaring their approval and enthusiastically singing along to ‘Be Happy’, from a musical which Patti wrote herself. An amazing end, to an amazing show: the late, great Aretha Franklin could not have asked for a more affectionate or moving tribute.