On June 24, 2000, I walked into Avery Fisher Hall and bore witness to my very first concert. Naturally, it was an Aretha Franklin concert. It’s one of those experiences that you don’t walk out of the same. It’s been 20 years, so my memory of certain specifics is fuzzy, but when I got my hands on audio of the show last year I was instantly transported back to the 33rd row of Avery Fisher Hall (now David Geffen Hall) at Lincoln Center. As I listened through the show, I tried to identify the few covers I didn’t recognize. What struck me more than anything else, was her closing number. Some intense listening and Googling of lyrics identified it as a cover of Pieces Of A Dream’s “Goodbye Manhattan.” It may be the only time Aretha ever covered the song, and this is the only known recording of the show.
Pieces of a Dream, for those unaware, are an R&B and jazz fusion group formed in Philadelphia in 1976. Their name is derived from a tune they performed that was recorded by Stanley Turrentine. Coincidentally, Turrentine and his Stanley Turrentine Quintet were Aretha’s opening act that evening. “Goodbye Manhattan” was the title cut to Pieces of a Dream’s 1995 LP, so it was just a few years old when Aretha covered it here in 2000.
There’s something serendipitous about hearing Aretha sing this song on her sole NYC date of this tour. This show was part of the JVC Jazz Festival, so it made sense for Aretha to bring some jazz into the mix. And while jazz was foundational to Aretha’s career, in later years it wasn’t something she always brought into her live show.
The Pieces of A Dream version of “Goodbye Manhattan” is smooth and sensual. The smooth jazz arrangement wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sade record. Aretha’s version smolders though, thanks in part to the immense band backing her up. Plus, as she sings lyrics like “I can feel the heat on the soles of my feet,” “Take me downtown, I don’t want to be alone tonight”, and “In the city that never sleeps, she’s got a spell on me, so bad I don’t want to leave” she evokes imagery of a hot Manhattan summer night, street lights flickering as manhole covers overflow with steam. Her voice is perfectly suited for the smooth jazz arrangement, even on this muffled cassette recording. Part of the magic in Aretha’s take is the dialed back tempo. It’s not near-creeping pace, but it’s just slowed-down enough to let Aretha linger just a bit on each phrase and properly Aretha-ize it. She even throws some light scatting in at the end.
Then, seemingly at a moment’s notice the tempo leaps into a gospel-clap driven conclusion. It harkens back to the cover of Bishop Larry Trotter & Sweet Holy Spirit’s “It’s Only A Test” Aretha finished before closing the show with “Goodbye Manhattan.” And with that, Aretha Franklin said goodbye to Manhattan, including my dad and a 10 year old me, who by that point had made their way up the aisle to the edge of the stage to get one final, up-close look at the Queen.