Kzoo musician remembers taking stage with Aretha Franklin

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Aretha Franklin touched lives around the world.

A West Michigan musician became one of them when he played a gig with Franklin when she visited Grand Rapids last year.

Craig Freeman is a freelance musician who got the call of his lifetime when he was asked to play with Franklin. Freeman has been playing trombone since he was 9 years old and earned his master’s degree in music at Western Michigan University.

He plays gigs and teaches music around the Kalamazoo area. You could say none of that prepared him for this.

“My phone rang just like in a movie, and a promoter in Grand Rapids called me and wanted to know if I was available to play a gig with Aretha Franklin in her backup band,” he told 24 Hour News 8. “It was just one of those surreal moments, just couldn’t believe it, and of course I said, ‘Yes.’”

Because how could you say no to the queen of soul?

“I grew up listening to her,” Freeman explained. “My grandpa would always drive us to school in the morning and it was either Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin on the radio.”

Fast forward to last year, when Franklin performed at DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids.  Freeman was one of a handful of musicians brought in a few hours before her show to rehearse a book of music and then play with Franklin. 

“You can’t help but experience that in the moment,” Freeman said of the performance. “I could sit here and say, ‘I was very professional’ and everything, but no, it’s Aretha Franklin.”

Freeman calls it a once-in-a-lifetime experience; the biggest gig he’s ever played.

“It’s an amazing career, and I’m thankful to have been one of the people that she’s graced and touched with her presence,” he said.

There was a moment in Franklin’s show that took Freeman by surprise. About halfway through the show, Franklin sat down at the piano and sang a hymn.

“To see her just by herself playing a piano and just singing a beautiful hymn was really touching and a wonderful moment,” said Freeman.

Freeman admits it wasn’t just another show to him. There was a certain level of awe performing with Franklin.

“I had one eye on the music and one eye on her,” he said with a smile. “One thing that I took away from that is that she was all for the music, and it’s something that once you remove yourself from the equation, and you’re just serving the music and what that experience brings to people,” Freeman said. “That’s the true goal in my sense. She personifies that.”

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