Aretha Franklin 1995

Aretha Franklin plays with a camcorder before a concert rehearsal in New York, April 27, 1995. Franklin's Thursday performance is to benefit New York City's Presbyterian Hospital's Sloane Hospital for Women. The famed singer has performed in Atlantic City, and has come to the city's jazz-filled Kentucky Avenue.

Joe Tabacca / Ap photo

Editor's note: This story originally published in the Press of Atlantic City on July 15, 1996. With Aretha Franklin announcing her retirement on Thursday, we wanted to re-up this story. 

On Friday nights, the summertime crowds would begin to pour into the clubs along the cramped blocks of Kentucky Avenue.

People would drive from Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., and even Boston to take in a weekend of entertainment offered by the famed Club Harlem and other hotspots on this, Atlantic City's most electric street.

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"They partied every night, until well into the next morning, " said Frank Doggett, 77, an Atlantic City physician who fondly remembers Kentucky Avenue's heyday in the 1940s and '50s.

"They would tell everyone about the good time they had, and then they would plan to return the next weekend, " he said.

Although those days are long gone, the street again buzzed with excitement Sunday for the fifth annual Kentucky Avenue Renaissance Festival, a celebration of music and community pride.

Thousands were expected to attend the event by the time things wrapped up Sunday night, when musical headliners B.T. Express and the Delfonics were scheduled to take the stage.

Even the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin, made an unannounced appearance to buy a few items from the festival's street vendors.

Clad in a T-shirt and denim shorts, Franklin apparently tried to conceal her identity with a pair of sunglasses. The crowd, however, recognized her almost immediately and one guy serenaded her with "Freeway of Love, " one of her hit songs.

Franklin was hardly the first top entertainer to visit Kentucky Avenue. Club Harlem and other now-defunct nightclubs regularly featured big-name black performers from the 1940s to the '80s.

Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were just a few of the stars who performed here. Louis Armstrong would play at the Steel Pier on Saturday nights and then come to Club Harlem at 2 a.m. and jam until 8:30 a.m., Doggett recalled.

Doggett, whose wife, Yvonne Bonitto-Doggett, served as chairwoman of Sunday's festival, was club doctor at Club Harlem years ago. He would treat the stars for a sore throat or other ailments.

"Some were temperamental and some were very nice, " Doggett said of the performers. "But most of them were very nice people."

Doggett doesn't believe that Kentucky Avenue will ever fully recapture its glory days as an entertainment center, but there are signs that the neighborhood is undergoing a revival after years of decay.

A new supermarket and shopping center, known as Renaissance Plaza, recently opened up on Kentucky and Atlantic avenues to give Atlantic City its first, full-sized grocery store in the downtown area.

Karlos LaSane, director of entertainment for the festival, said the event would showcase the progress and cultural diversity in the Kentucky Avenue neighborhood.

"My goal is to create a new renaissance district, " LaSane said. "This is a place where people will come for good food, good music and a good time."

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