Lunenburg’s Stepton Reflects on Sharing a Stage with Aretha Franklin
LUNENBURG -- Even if you don’t know Rick Stepton, you are familiar with his résumé.
The Fitchburg native and career trombone player spent the longest stretch of time as a side man playing for Buddy Rich, but during his roughly six-decade career he also crossed paths with the likes of Ray Charles, Liberace, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett.
There are hundreds of acts and performers Stepton has played with, many of them among the greats of jazz, soul and R&B.
“Aretha is right up there with them,” he said.
When the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, died from pancreatic cancer Thursday, Stepton said he wasn’t surprised.
“She was not exactly healthy when I last worked with her, but she was dealing with it,” he said. “She had a great life, and I guess it was time for her to go.”
Stepton said the last time he shared a stage with Franklin was about 10 years ago, during a performance she gave at the Wang Theatre in Boston. Even though she was in her mid-60s at the time, Stepton recalled how Franklin was able to “prance” across the stage as she always had throughout her prolific life in the spotlight.
Unable to recall the exact number of times he played alongside Franklin, Stepton estimates it was over a dozen. As a well-established jazz musician in his own right, he was frequently called upon to be a part of the bands that accompanied stars whenever they performed in New England.
Though these live collaborations spanned many years, Stepton admits he never got the chance to know Franklin personally. Like the majority of the prominent musicians he’s worked with, he said it was a professional relationship that he wanted to respect, and that meant keeping his distance.
“The people who say they mucky-mucked with the stars are always lying,” he said. “They’ve got their own separate dressing rooms, they’ve got body guards. You don’t just go up to Aretha and say, ‘Hi I’m Rick, I played with you last year.’ You let them stay by themselves.”
Stepton said it’s a distance between performers that’s common in the music industry, but he also notes that he’s always suffered from stage fright and doesn’t discount that it might have played a part in him never trying to be more social with stars like Franklin.
“It’s just not in my personality. I’ve never introduced myself or talked to really any famous musician as long as I’ve been alive,” he said. “And I do regret that now.”
Aretha Franklin passed away at her home in Detroit Thursday. She was 76.
Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53.