I had several jobs while I was in college. DJ, coach, camp counselor. But the one I kept going back to was my job as a banquet waiter in Detroit. The money was great. Anything over 4 hrs was overtime. And tips were automatically included. Yes, it was a union job.
My mother got myself and a few of my friends, John Walker, Tom Grindem and Eddie Macknis to name a few, gigs working “the line-up.” We were what’s known as extras. When a hotel had a large event, we would come in and work. It was sort of like Kelly Girls for banquets. You could start your day at the Westin downtown for a lunch. Then hightail it over to the Radison in Dearborn for a dinner shift.
The best part of the job, was going behind the curtain at some of Detroit’s more exclusive events. Most of the famous people entertaining at these events, would quite often hang out with the wait staff before going on. I was serenaded by Sammy Davis Jr. I ate fried chicken with Chubby Checker and played (and beat) Lou Rawls in spades.
But the most memorable encounter came at the 1989 NAACP banquet at Cobo Hall.
The NAACP was our Super Bowl on the Line-Up. It was a 10,000 person sit-down dinner. Organizers billed it as the largest sit-down dinner in the world. All 10,000 were served within 10 minutes of each other. It was quite a feat.
While wandering the back halls of Cobo I spotted a woman wearing a white hat and white dress. She was a woman with flawless skin. As I got closer she started to look familiar.
When I got next to her, I asked, “Excuse me. Are you Aretha Franklin?” She grabbed my hand and said “Yes honey, I am.”
There she was. The greatest female singer in the world. She didn’t have an entourage. Just herself and her date. While holding my hand, she asked, “And what’s your name?” I told her, “Lee Patrick Sullivan.” She responded, “Wow, can’t get more Irish than that. Are you working tonight?” It was a pretty good guess on her part. I was a skinny white kid at the NAACP banquet wandering the back hallways in a beat-up tux. I told her I was and before I could ask her a question about her, or to tell her how much I enjoyed her music, she kept the conversation on me. “Are you with Local-24?” Here was the Queen of Soul knowing my union local number. I couldn’t resist repeating what she had said to me, “Yes honey I am.” She laughed, and said “You tell Dan Spinx (union president) I said hi, and he needs to get you a better contract next time.” She smiled and walked away.
That encounter replays in my head every time I hear her on the radio. I’m not too sure the youth of today realize what a force in music she was. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And the youngest recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.
She had to fight racism, sexism and body shaming. She could sing Gospel, Rock, Pop and of course soul. She was also a classically trained pianist who could play circles around Billy Joel or Elton John.
The greatest testament to her talents came at the 1998 Grammy Awards. The show had already begun and Luciano Pavarotti called in sick. He was to perform “Nessun Dorma.” The producer of the telecast remembered Aretha had performed that very song in the past and rushed to her dressing room.
He asked if she would step in for the ill Pavarotti. She was already scheduled to perform “Think” in a Blues Brother’s tribute that night. Aretha agreed, saying she still remembered the words (In Italian). Before leaving, the producer asked one more favor. He asked her to sing it as a tenor, not her usual mezzo-soprano. Think about that. No rehearsal. Millions of people watching. And someone asks you to sing a second song, in a foreign language, and not in your range. And, by the way, you are on in 30 minutes. Aretha simply said, “Yes.” And she killed it. Pavarotti would later tell a reporter, it was so beautiful he was crying in his hotel room watching the broadcast.
There isn’t a singer out there today who could have pulled off “Think” and “Nessun Dorma” in the same night.
Aretha was humble and loyal. Despite her stardom, she never left her home town of Detroit. Motown left. Comerica left. As did Jack White and this writer. Aretha stayed and was a proud ambassador for the city. Despite a home in Bloomfield Hills, she chose to live her final years downtown with a view of the river.
Much like Bowie, Prince and Elvis. We will not see her kind again. There isn’t a singer today that can match her talent or her grace. She was given the title “The Queen of Soul” she didn’t give it to herself. Be it performing on Soul Train or during 3 presidential inaugurations she didn’t lip sync. She sang at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then 40 years later her voice welcomed the nation’s first African American president. Detroit is hurting today. America is less soulful today. I consider myself lucky that I still have her music and the memory of the day I met royalty.