Another day, another legend gone.
And make no mistake people, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul was a legend. She’s the first person outside of the Beatles (John, Paul, George, Ringo) who could be identified with only one name… Aretha. You didn’t need to include the Franklin, people knew.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been traveling a lot lately (Thoughts From The Traveling Salesman And A B&V Playlist: Hanging On The Telephone). I was in the airport on Monday, waiting for a plane, when I heard the news that Aretha was in hospice. “How could that be?” I asked myself. She was only 76, way too young to pass. My thoughts the rest of the week were centered on Aretha and her brilliant career. I was moving slowly through the labyrinth style security line at DIA on Thursday morning, yesterday, when I heard this scruffy kid with a really sorry excuse for a mustache, who looked thirteen, say “Aretha Franklin just died.” I spun around quickly…”When?” was all I could say. “Just now…” He went on to say, “I can’t really think of any of her songs…” I considered striking him and challenging him to a duel, but he was a TSA agent and I didn’t want to end up in a padded room in the basement of the airport. Instead, I walked in sad silence to my gate. The Queen of Soul was gone.
I couldn’t help yesterday, flashing back 41 years to the day, on a similarly sad August afternoon. I was in junior high school and I was piled into my football coach’s car, along with what seems like ten other players, all shoulder pads and helmets, on our way to football practice. The news came over the radio that Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll had died. My coach, Coach Taylor, pulled his blue Mercury over to the side of the road and we all listened to the radio news report. “How could this be, the coach uttered, Elvis was my age?” Indeed, coach, how could this be?
Aretha Franklin was a titanic talent. She got her start, like many singers, in church. In this case, it was her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin’s church. Aretha could sing but she was also a self-taught pianist. Frankly, I’ve always felt, like Elton John said on social media yesterday, that she was an underrated pianist. Rev C.L. Franklin was actually a preacher of some renown and had a touring tent gospel show, preaching the word. Aretha would sing. Because of that renown, many other famous people would stop by the Franklin residence in Detroit. The Soul Stirrers featuring none other than Sam Cooke were friends and occasional visitors. Martin Luther King, Jr was also a guest in the Franklin home. I read somewhere, that when she was 12 years old, Aretha actually sang for the first time publicly for MLK. That moment, if that’s true, sort of crystallizes a lot of things that Aretha conjures in my mind- singer, gospel, and civil rights advocate. In 1968, she also sang at Reverend King’s funeral cementing her connection with the Civil Rights Movement.
It wasn’t long after beginning her singing career, inspired by Sam Cooke’s switch from gospel to secular, pop music, that Aretha was moved to do the same. She transplanted to New York and signed with Columbia Records. But it wasn’t until she moved to Atlantic Records, and teamed with Producer Jerry Wexler, that things clicked. And boy did they. My frame of reference and focus on Aretha’s catalog has always been the must-have albums, I Never Loved A Man The Way That I Loved You and Lady Soul. There are so many other great Aretha albums from that late-60s early 70s time period, that are essential soul: Aretha Now, Soul ’69, Spirit in the Dark, and Young, Gifted And Black. It was a criminal omission on my part, to not include her fabulous live album Live At The Fillmore West on my Essential Live LPs list (BourbonAndVinyl Comes Alive: The Epic List Of Essential Live Albums). I advise everyone to dive deeply into this woman’s catalog. So many hits, so many great songs. My favorite might be “Baby, I Love You,” but it’s hard to name just one. She sold over 75 million albums in her career. That’s a ton of records. And like Elvis, Aretha would occasionally return to her gospel roots on records like Amazing Grace.
When you think about Aretha’s career, it all boils down that voice. What Wexler was so genius at in terms of producing was that he brought her gospel roots out in the soul music she performed. No matter what genre Aretha was interpreting, blues, soul, jazz, you could always hear the gospel in her voice. The Stones, both Mick and Keith, commented in their tributes yesterday, the same thing, that Aretha “took you to church.” My buddy Stormin’ once said that same thing to me about Aretha, years ago. I know what they all mean. She was one of the most brilliant interpreters of other people’s music, no matter who it was – Sam Cooke, B.B. King, or Otis Redding – Aretha would make the songs her own. And her mastery of the call and response with her back up singers is another thing she just owns for me.
The most famous song she did, was Otis Redding’s “Respect.” When Otis heard the Aretha’s version of the song, he muttered, “Damn, that girl just stole my song.” He knew it wasn’t his any more. “Respect” indeed became Aretha’s “signature song,” much the same way “Satisfaction” is for the Stones. It was the perfect song for Aretha. She fought her whole life as a black woman for civil rights but also for women’s rights. It was such a strong statement in her voice, demanding respect as a proud, black woman. That’s why Aretha is such a legend, she transcends music and soul. She was the voice of America, not just musically but culturally. It’s a shame so many of the issues she fought for remain problems to this very day… but I digress. I could literally listen to this woman sing all day. In fact, the last two days, that’s what I’ve done.
It’s going to be a very soulful weekend here at the B&V labs, sipping dark, murky fluids and listening to the Queen of Soul into the early morning hours. I do like to think, if there is a “Heaven,” that the King of Rock n Roll and the Queen of Soul are reunited today… singing a great, great gospel song. That’s a service that even I’d attend…
RIP Aretha Franklin! Long live the Queen!