Farewell Aretha

It was 1967 and I was ten years old, my next oldest sister brought home a new album by Aretha Franklin. Of course, at the time we thought it was Aretha’s first album. Little did we know that she had recorded as a gospel artist in the late 1950’s and as a jazz singer in the early to mid 1960’s. We could be forgiven for our ignorance because Aretha was still so young, only 27 years old at the time.

Although I was just a child, I thoroughly appreciated this music. I was captivated by Ms. Franklin’s voice, soaring and commanding, yet, at times vulnerable. In other words, she exhibited a greater range of emotions than other singers I had heard. Her range was wide and her execution was flawless and still she had a great deal of humanity. Furthermore, her piano playing, much underrated, displayed sophistication while also retaining an earthy, rootsy, gospel-informed funkiness. The Muscle Shoals players and Jerry Wexler’s sparse, not slick, yet very professional production also spoke to me. I loved and still love Motown music, but, something about the Southern soul sound of Fame studios (and Stax in Memphis) really goes directly to my heart.

Tonight I listened to her Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul released in 2007. The amazing thing about this album is that the versions and songs that didn’t make the cut were better than many that were released by other artists at the time.

By 1969, for many young white music lovers soul music may have started to diverge from rock music. Yet, a few acts such as Sly and The Family Stone transcended the divide. Aretha was one such artist. She recorded with rock artists like Eric Clapton, Dr. John, and Duane Allman. Progressive rock radio in the 1960’s and early 1970’s was (like later classic rock radio) largely devoted to white male artists. Exceptions to the rule included Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Richie Havens, Freddie King, Albert King, and Aretha.

Aretha Franklin was the rare singer who could take a cover version and make it totally her own. She transformed a minor Otis Redding song, Respect, into an anthem – for civil rights, for women’s rights, indeed, for human rights. Any song she sang became her own. One outstanding example is the Bert Bacharach, Hal David song I Say a Little Prayer. This was a 1967 hit for Dionne Warwick, a long established soul and pop artist. The next year Aretha had the audacity to record a cover version. I love and respect Dionne, yet, unlike the brisk, poppy rendition by Warwick, Aretha’s version built up to a powerful climax, then became soft and intimate only to build to a further climax. You could feel it in your chest. It was spiritual and revelatory while Dionne’s rendition sounded mundane by comparison. Her recording of Carole King’s (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman is unsurpassed. The Band’s iconic roots rock classic The Weight was transformed by her, with the help of Duane Allman. She could even remake B B King’s The Thrill is Gone in her own image.

I remember seeing Aretha live in a beautifully restored 1930’s theater in the 1990’s. Since she was in her 50’s, I was sure that she would be saving her voice by not hitting high notes until she really had to for her most famous songs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. She showed no signs of age or diminishing vitality. And when she sat down at the piano we knew that we were in store for a rare treat. It was an experience that would be treasured forever. Unfortunately, my wife, who has been known to fall asleep in the front row of Return of the Jedi, nodded off during the concert. After it was over she said, “She was great, but, I was disappointed that she didn’t sing Respect.” I had to inform her that not only did Aretha sing Respect, she tore it up.

I am so sad that we have lost such a great talent. I may be biased, but, I feel that the world is not replacing the talent we are losing every day. To me, this is a crisis. It may not be as striking as global warming or extinction of species, however, it does deserve our attention. What is the appropriate response? I feel that we should first of all, buy recordings, downloads, etc. of artists like Aretha Franklin to appreciate what they have brought to our world and culture. Furthermore, if we have musical talent or ability we should acquaint ourselves with as much musical history as we can so that we can absorb,carry on, and expand upon long standing traditions instead of merely trying to keep up with current short term ephemeral trends.

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