December 6, 2015: Fonzi Thornton is standing onstage at the Kennedy Center. The Queen of Soul holds court at the piano. It’s the ultimate manifestation of a lifelong dream. As a teenager, Thornton sang Aretha Franklin songs while strolling through Harlem. As a session vocalist, he backed her on the title track to Jump to It (1982). Tonight, he will help shape one of the most unforgettable performances of her career.
Time stands still as Franklin pays tribute to Kennedy Center honoree Carole King with a transcendent rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. Thornton has brought together vocalists Brenda White-King, Vaneese Thomas, and Franklin’s cousin Brenda Corbett for the occasion. The four singers share a special musical language with the Queen. At Franklin’s request, they face her during the performance. Their voices blend to perfection.
Three weeks later, CBS broadcasts the Kennedy Center Honors. The cameras capture the crowd’s visceral reaction to Franklin’s voice. Every word and every gesture sparks a sense of awe. The New York Times devotes an entire article to Franklin’s four minutes onstage. The clip itself goes viral on social media ...