Aretha Franklin was a comedian at heart, and it showed during her shows. She loved to take a moment between songs and tell a joke or two. Over the many times I saw her, most of her shows contained at least one moment of stand-up comedy. She clearly loved to get a good laugh out of her audience.
Occasionally, Aretha’s sense of humor extended into song. Back in the late 1970’s, she incorporated an Impressions Medley into her setlist, where she would “do”, or, maybe out-do being a better description, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, and Mavis Staples. She clearly had a grand old time as she mimicked Mavis’ deep tone, Gladys’ “oo y’all”’s, and Diana’s entire persona, from her tone, to her movements, to the the oversized vibrant pink feather coat.
In the late 2000’s, that humor in song reappeared in full force. During at least 4 dates in 2008/2009, Aretha included an unlikely number in her setlist: Mariah Carey’s then-recent number 1 hit “Touch My Body”. It was a common occurrence: Aretha loved to mix a contemporary hit into her setlist. Over the years in concert she’d cover Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone”, Kenny Lattimore’s “For You”, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, Vanessa Williams’ “Colors of the Wind”, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”, Mariah Carey’s “Hero”, and Keyshia Cole’s “I Remember”, to name a few.
But this cover was very different. As she sings the song, she’s clearly having a good laugh at the expense of the overtly sensual lyrics. Her arm goes up and down in a mock-stabbing motion while she sings the “I will hunt you down” And as she works her way through the chorus of “touch my body, throw me on the floor, wrestle me around, play with me some more” she shimmies, rolls her eyes and drops her arm in an exasperated fashion.
During one performance, she takes it a step farther and quips: “Can somebody tell Mariah I can’t sing this stuff?”, before continuing “‘Wrestle me around’? ‘Throw me on the floor’? I don’t think so. You know you have to go home if you okay with that.” During another performance, she nods to the Wendy Williams reference in the song, adding a ‘how you doin’’ directly into the camera taping her performance (the camera immediately stops taping at that point, clearly concerned that the “I will hunt you down” of the song may have some basis in fact).
Looking beyond the humor of the moment, the arrangement she laid on the track highlighted just how versatile “Touch My Body” can be. The original track musically lent itself to the electronic instrumentation of keyboards and synthesizers the song’s co-writer/co-producer The-Dream relied on heavily at that time. However, Aretha’s arrangement swaps the keyboards for a piano, while live brass and electric bass take the place of the varying synth parts. The bass especially harkens back to the work Aretha did with Luther Vandross on Jump To It and Get It Right. It’s a unique yet very memorable moment in Aretha’s long history of live performances.
Watch Aretha joke her way through “Touch My Body”: