A Memory: When Aretha Franklin Visited The U.S.O.

Aretha Franklin 1968

I still remember a gray day in February 1971. Anti-war sentiment in San Francisco, California was running high, and the U.S.O. at 1017 Market Street, where I worked as a secretary, felt almost like a besieged fortress. Then one day, a whisper went through the office (which was upstairs from the main U.S.O.) —  “Aretha Franklin just came in!” Then, “Aretha Franklin is down in the basement — she’s giving a concert!”

As a background to this event, I should explain that after the anti-war demonstrations that took place in San Francisco in November 1969, a few months after I had begun working in the city, the attitude of many citizens had become openly hostile to the military personnel in the area.

It got so bad that the U.S.O. began recommending to the nearby military bases that servicemen should not wear their uniforms into the city. If guys in uniform did stray into the city, the U.S.O. was about the only place they felt really safe and welcomed, at least according to what I heard from them.

The U.S.O. on Market Street had comfortable couches to sit or sleep on, a pool table, board games and jigsaw puzzles, a jukebox, two pianos (one on the main floor, one in the basement). We also featured a friendly, grandmotherly French Basque woman named Marguerite. She worked in a small kitchen, cooking from scratch each weekday, producing the delightful scents of homemade pastries, sandwiches, soups, casseroles…. She served whatever was on the menu through a small window between her kitchen and the dining/games area, always with a cheerful comment or a joke.

The basement of the U.S.O. was a large open space, and occasionally music acts passing through on their way to join a U.S.O. tour in Vietnam would stop by for a mini-concert. At other times, there were dances with U.S.O. volunteers, or some sort of free presentation offered by some local presenter — scenic slides of rock-climbing in Yosemite (complete with technical details on knots) or comedy presentations from local actors, for example — anything that the U.S.O. directors thought the servicemen would like.

And now Aretha Franklin had shown up to give a volunteer presentation. Everyone in the office went down to see what was happening.

There she was, in a long fur coat and a church-lady hat, sitting at the piano and singing, then turning the piano over to a serviceman and singing some more. The guys called out their favorites, and she sang them. The room was crammed full, and I had to peek in from the stairs.

Finally, she said that she had to go; she had a plane to catch. The applause was thunderous, and I scampered back up the stairs, and went over to the kitchen to wait for the basement to clear. I was helping to fill saltshakers when I heard a voice behind me, “I just wanted to thank the people who work at the U.S.O. What are your names?”

It was Aretha Franklin. We introduced ourselves, and Marguerite explained that she did home cooking for the guys. (Her current culinary masterpiece was still in the oven.) She also explained that I didn’t usually work in the kitchen, but we liked to talk in French together. Ms. Franklin seemed very interested, asked about our jobs, our working hours, our safety, the morale of the servicemen. She said she always liked to talk to the people who worked behind the scenes because they knew what was really happening in a place. Then she shook hands with both of us, smiled warmly, thanked us for talking with her, and went to catch her plane.

I saw quite a few celebrities pass through the U.S.O., but the only one who showed up unannounced, gave freely of her talent, and who made an effort to meet the “little people” was Aretha Franklin. The world needs more people like her; she will be missed.

(This essay was written on August 16, 2018. The publicity photo of Aretha Franklin is from an advertisement in Billboard, 17 February 1968, according to Wikipedia, and it is not under copyright.)

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