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Aretha Franklin: Rare photos, her Palm Beach vacation and more

When she first appeared in South Florida, she was an unknown hotel club singer.

When she last appeared in South Florida, she was a legend, an icon.

Only one word necessary: Aretha.

From the 1960s through the early 2000s, Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday at age 76, was a fixture on South Florida stages. In Palm Beach County, she performed at the West Palm Beach Auditorium, Kravis Center and Mizner Park Amphitheatre. And she once spent a months-long vacation in Palm Beach, even planning a star-studded birthday bash that had to be canceled at the last minute.

The earliest mention of Franklin in South Florida comes in a March 29, 1962, brief in The Miami News, saying she was opening the following night at the Sir John Hotel’s Knight Beat Club. It was only a year after she had switched from gospel to secular recording, and before she joined Atlantic Records, where she would unleash her most memorable hits.

The best Aretha Franklin songs: A timeline

Seven years later, when she appeared at The Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, she was a chart-topping R & B powerhouse, billed as “Miss Aretha Franklin.”

But the newly emergent First Lady of Soul appeared shy and reluctant to say much when she was interviewed in February 1969 by the Miami News’ Carolyn Jay Wright. Smoking menthol cigarettes and surrounded by multicolored carnations in a Fontainebleau luxury suite, she declined to talk much about her shows, her children or what the paper called “the controversial racial situation”:

“Let’s just skip that,” Franklin said. “Just say that I’m glad to be the nationality and the color that I am.”

But she did open up a little about her performance style: “I just sing it the way I feel it. That’s what soul is — feeling, depth and being able to reach someone. Soul has been and will be.”

In 1972, she would record her album “Young, Gifted and Black” at Miami’s famous Criteria Studios. The album won her a Grammy and spawned two Top 10 singles — “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady.”

It wouldn’t be until 1982 that Franklin made her first notable appearance in Palm Beach County, performing at West Palm’s auditorium. For that occasion, she gave her only interview to The Palm Beach Post, speaking from her hometown of Detroit to reporter Cheryl Blackerby.

She was “zapped” by recording, concert and film commitments, she told Blackerby, as well as overseeing the building of a new home.

“Being an Aries, I’m supposed to have natural energy. I wonder where it is.”

But she perked up on the subject of music: “Honey, music is my forte.” She talked about enjoying her role in “The Blues Brothers” movie (watch it again, she’s still the best thing in it.) She said she was considering other movie roles, but there was one problem:

“You have to get up pretty early. I don’t like that part.”

Music still dominated her busy life, she said. “Honey, I haven’t had a vacation in six years, but I don’t think I want to take one.”

In 1998, she did. The Post’s Thom Smith reported that Franklin had spent most of the winter season in Palm Beach. She was planning a birthday party at the-then Ritz-Carlton in Manalapan on April 5, but had to cancel to perform in a VH1 “Divas” special. Too bad: it appeared that guests planning to attend were Sly Stallone, Celine Dion, Sandra Dee and possibly Barbra Streisand, Smith reported.

Over the years, Franklin performed to rapturous crowds in Palm Beach County. The only complaint Palm Beach Post critics could find with her shows is that they were relatively short, usually about an hour-and-a-half.

But even a brief audience with the Queen was better than nothing at all, especially when she would riff on the gospel church chords of her youth. Here is what I wrote in a review of her 1998 concert at the Kravis Center:

As a 21-piece orchestra belted out Sly Stone’s I Want To Take You Higher, the Queen, Lady Soul, the Wonderful Voice of Gold, the Diva of All Divas sashayed onto the stage Wednesday night in a floor-length, slit-legged lilac dress.

It only took a moment. Ten seconds, tops. And it was all over.

Signed, sealed, delivered. The Kravis Center was hers.

Aretha Franklin converted the typically staid hall into an electrified tent revival. I’ve never heard a Kravis audience so energized or loud - boomers (and a few seniors) shimmied in their seats, ran up the aisles and shouted out, “Go, sister,” “Take it up,” or simply, “ARETHA!”

Only one word necessary.

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