There’s magic in making ‘sit’ a four-syllable word
In 1994, the first time the Roots played the Montreux Jazz Fest, event founder Claude Nobs took the band’s frontman Questlove to his house to watch a film of Aretha Franklin performing at the festival in 1971. “He told me, ‘This is the reason I dedicate my life to Montreux Jazz,’ ” Questlove recalls.
It had taken Nobs years to get Aretha to play there. She had canceled repeatedly, made extravagant demands — a bigger dressing room, an extra suite — and he had tried to woo her with flowers and candy, he later told Franklin biographer David Ritz. “It was hell trying to arrange the date.”
Now, though, in June 1971, she was there onstage, in a flowing gown and dangling earrings — relaxed but in control of her music and her audience. Though she often hired local musicians on the cheap while touring Europe, this time she had brought her regular band, saxophone great King Curtis and the Kingpins. But as she sat at the Steinway midway through her 10-song set, it was clear that this young woman, not yet 30, was not merely the singer but the de facto bandleader. Watching her now, Questlove still finds it astonishing.
“It’s literally her in a zone so deep and so spiritual,” said the Roots’ frontman.
“Aretha doesn’t get the credit because she’s not dancing around like James Brown. A lot of his body movement accentuates the band that’s behind him, but, you know, she has just as much power, if anything more power, sitting at the piano commanding her band.”
And then, eight songs in, came the high point: “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business).”
She started with a piano roll, then paused.
“Does anybody feel like hearing the blues?” she coyly asked her audience. “You don’t think it’s too early for the blues right now?”
She resumed playing and began to sing. “I don’t want nobody . . . always . . . sss-sss-sss-sitting around . . . ”
It went on for six or seven seconds, that sss-sss-sss. Search as much as you like; she never sang the song quite like that in any other recorded performance. “It just becomes something beyond onomatopoeia or chanting,” says Questlove. “To watch her pronounce the word ‘sit’ for six seconds, it’s just unheard of. That’s when you’re lost in a zone, that’s when you’re really into your craft.”
When she wrote “Dr. Feelgood” — for her breakthrough 1967 album “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” — she was married. Unhappily. To the co-writer of the song. Ted White was her husband, her manager and her tormentor, the man she married in 1961 against her father’s wishes, when she was just 19.