THE disembodied voice of the ``Queen of Soul,'' Aretha Franklin, soared out over the orchestra at Radio City Music Hall - ``Say you love me. ... That's all I ask of you.'' The audience watched a series of video stills of the singer, holding its breath until it could get a glimpse of the real Aretha Franklin in this oh-so-rare three-night appearance in New York earlier this month. They didn't have long to wait. The orchestra swelled with a fanfare, a drum roll, and then a funky dance beat.
An enormous pink Cadillac, topped with bunches of pink balloons, glided on stage, and Franklin emerged, decked out in a white lace gown festooned with cabbage roses, her hair cropped short and stylish, her diamond earrings matching her sparkling eye shadow.
Instantly everyone in the hall jumped to their feet, as Aretha launched into her hit version of the Rolling Stones's ``Jumpin' Jack Flash.'' The exhilaration of those first moments didn't flag until the curtain came down.
Accompanied by her own group (including her son, Teddy, on guitar) and backup singers, with a full orchestra, Franklin dished up some of her best-known hits: ``Respect,'' ``Chain of Fools,'' ``Freeway of Love,'' and the 1989 version of her 1967 hit ``Think,'' featured on her new album ``Through the Storm.''
Highlights of the evening were two duets with singer Peabo Bryson - ``I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),'' the hit song Franklin recorded with British singer George Michael, and ``Tonight I Celebrate My Love for You.'' Bryson and Franklin's voices blended deliciously, and Franklin's normally regal bearing turned downright coquettish in the presence of the handsome and stylish Bryson.
Franklin is an enigmatic character, and one wonders just how much her stage persona reveals of the real Aretha. But her astonishing gospel-rooted vocals, the authority she demonstrates in performance, and the intensity of the emotion she communicates to the audience indicate that there's a good deal more to Aretha Franklin than the cool and collected image she often presents to the public.
Introducing Bryson, she said, ``A voice like his comes along once in a millennium.'' ``Like yours!'' shouted someone from the audience. Aretha came back with, ``That's right, like mine! What about me?'' And she added, referring again to Bryson, ``Whatever you give to him, give it to me three times over!''
And give it they did, shouting, stomping, dancing in their seats. ``There's a wonderful feeling in the house tonight,'' said Franklin. Indeed there was.
It was evident that the Queen of Soul still reigns.