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Queen Aretha Franklin

The great soul sister hosts ”Duets,” an all-star AIDS benefit

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Even on a stage filled with rock’s celestial bodies, Aretha Franklin, the 51-year-old Queen of Soul, remains the center of the cosmos. During the rehearsals for her May 9 Fox-TV extravaganza, Aretha Franklin: Duets (a benefit for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis), even the superstars were starstruck. Bonnie Raitt and Gloria Estefan were so overwhelmed they had trouble finding their notes on ”(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman.” With royal assurance, Franklin steered her stellar partners to perfect pitch.

Also paying R-E-S-P-E-C-T to Franklin were her old friend Smokey Robinson (who sang ”Just to See Her” with her), a tanned Rod Stewart (”People Get Ready”), a pouty Elton John (”Border Song”), and a glorious New Jersey Mass Choir (”Spirit in the Dark”). Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman (who flew in from the West Coast for the honor of introducing her) were also on hand. The benefit, which was taped April 27 before an audience of 1,100 at the Nederlander Theatre in New York, raised $225,000. And needless to say, it was a heavenly night.