When I heard that the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, had died, my first thought was, “Is life truly worth living without the presence of Aretha?”
I mentioned in a recent journal entry what a lucky life I have had. A big chunk of that luck was to have been on this planet during Aretha Franklin’s wave of recordings for Atlantic Records. From this point on, those incredible performances will now have to stand in for our dear departed diva.
I was in my last year of high school (1967) when Aretha’s breakthrough LP I Never Loved a Man the Way I loved You was released. It hit my generation like the proverbial ton of bricks. This was different; this was new. James Brown was well established as the King of Soul. To me and my friends, James’ music sounded like it came from another planet. Enter the Queen: Aretha Franklin. Her music sounded as if it was the first music to emerge from Planet Earth.
Here was African American music that was different from what was coming out of Detroit and Motown. It was richer, deeper, sexier and more meaningful. It struck the deepest of chords.
I grew up in a couple of nearly all-white communities. My second major home was in Thousand Oaks, an extremely conservative community (when the first black family moved into Thousand Oaks a cross was burned on their front lawn). The guys in my hang-out group were all musicians (we were all in rock bands). Our sole exposure to black culture back then was music. Along with our Beatles and Yardbirds covers (we were exposed to black American blues second hand by British Invasion bands), we had already started to incorporate black music into our band’s sets.
I’ll never forget what was said by the lead guitarist from another band as we walked home from school and Aretha Franklin was brought up in our musical conversation.
He confided and whispered to me, “When I hear her sing, she gives me a boner.”
That was revelatory (and pretty forbidden) back then. And it caught my attention.
I bought that LP — and her subsequent Atlantic LPs — and became immersed in her world and her music. Her interpretations of songs crossed racial lines and united us as human beings, all of us yearning for the love and sharing the heartbreaks she expressed. Aretha built cultural bridges for us all, white or black or brown.
My favorite performance of hers is “I Say a Little Prayer”, a song written by the dynamite white songwriting duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. What originally seemed like pure white pop music (I love Dionne Warwick — the original singer of most Bacharach/David songs — but her recordings were definitely aimed at an MOR — Middle of the Road — audience), the song was given a deep injection of transcendent soul by Ms. Franklin. Her version builds and builds until it soars.
If you have not been exposed to the music of Aretha Franklin (how is that possible?), then I would recommend the purchase of her first four Atlantic albums: I Never Loved a Man the Way I loved You, Aretha Arrives, Lady Soul (with a guest spot by Eric Clapton) and Aretha Now. Keep in mind that when you hear her performing the best music black culture has ever produced, that she is backed on those LPs by a magical mix of dedicated black and white musicians — plus Aretha’s own amazing piano playing. If you’re a male, it will probably give you a boner.
I have had bouts of weeping over Aretha for days now. I expect they will continue.
May all of our tears cleanse all of our souls.
Her music lives on forever.