This morning, Thursday, August 16, 2018, Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul, stepped from this life into the realm of ever, everlasting. Her voice defined music. She was composer and arranger. She taught herself how to play the piano and she sang everything. Here's Aretha back in the day on the Martha Steward Show. When Martha asked about the song she played and sang, Aretha explained that it was Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, "an old English folk song with a little Bach in the middle."
Everyone is writing about and commenting on Aretha. Most of what I have read and heard is heartfelt and passionate. Some people, however, need to tell us whether or not she was raised by her mother, or how old Aretha was when she had her first baby. If it is shame we want to expose, what of the baby father? Why must girls and women continue to bear the brunt of stigmata. I got pregnant at 17. This is called life. Aretha's situations informed her creative juices, her outlook on whatever may befall, and dared the world to decide if she was copy or the real thing. When we talk of love or the lack of it, I think "Baby Baby Baby" is her best tragic love story work, she sings, "I'm bewildered, I'm lonely and I'm loveless. . ."
When Angela Davis was arrested for her supposed part in Jonathan Jackson's plan to release his brother, George, from prison, Aretha offered to pay Angela's bond, stating: “Angela Davis must go free. . .Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace." (Read Soledad Brothers, Chicago Review Press, 1994). Here's Aretha singing Nina Simone's "Young Gifted and Black." Thanks to Hans Linden for uploading the song and carefully curating the photos.
I won't write about "Respect." I know "Respect," is generally everyone's favorite song. Back in the day, we liked that song, but Aretha had so many songs and we considered some of the others more pertinent. I'm talking about the kind of songs where we had to sit and think about the lyrics and why she was singing them the way she did. For example, if some boy approached with some ole okey doke, we could readily say, boy, you must be running out a fools. Later in the 1980's, we could say something like, really? Who zooming who? Thank you to Soul Roulette for posting this video of Aretha singing "Running out of Fools" on the TV show, Shindig, from 1964.
The very first album I purchased with money I earned from a summer job was "I Never Loved a Man." I remember listening to those lyrics, not fully understanding most of them, but falling in love with the voice that sang them. She addressed my feelings about my little young boyfriends in ways that I could not express. Later, when I found myself in stupid relationships with men, and not strong enough to set myself free, Aretha's lyrics, still deep in the recesses of my mind, got me through. Thank you to allaretha.wordpress.com for posting this 45, "Sweet Bitter Love" from 1965, both "A" and "B" sides.
There really is no difference between R&B, the Blues, Jazz, or Gospel. Each reflects some version of life, our downs, our ups, our holy combinations and everything in between. When Aretha sang "Running Out of Fools," she could have been singing "Oh Mary Don't You Weep." The combination of Quincy Jones and Aretha on the album "Hey Now Hey" produced some Blues so raunchy, we hear Aretha talking about how she feel like "somebody just slapped her with a nasty gym shoe."
Another song I want to introduce you to, or have you remember is "Try a Little Tenderness." I was seventeen, pregnant, confused, abused and generally ashamed of my life. The first version was done by Otis Redding. I had the 45 playing on my little record player. You had to sit close in order to hear the music and I remember thinking, wow, tenderness. I didn't know how to give it, or ask for it, but I knew I wanted it. I played that 45 so much the face of it turned white. Aretha did it later, put it in first person, made it more relevant. Chris Brown did it also for the movie "This Christmas." Here's Aretha's version.
What I think about Aretha is that she was a down to earth woman, daughter, sister and mother, born with that voice. She never had a face lift or any other kind of cosmetic surgery that I know of. She aged. She was and is forever. She had no need for playacting, no need for any theater of the absurd. You could take her, or leave her. She was holy, in the way that Marvin sings it at the end of Let's Get I On, "I been sanctified," meaning set apart, made legitimate, purified, unburdened, redeemed.
Always when an icon such as Aretha Franklin leaves this earth, people emerge, try to copy the style and grace of the legend. For example, there's a girl on this season's America's Got Talent who is all the rage with her renditions of James Brown. Everyone is over the moon about her, but I would say to her, what is it about your own life that informs your creative juices, your outlook? What about you will tell the world whether or not you are copy, or the real thing?
On the other hand, there is this desire to add our voices to what has already been created. The other's work inspires us, and motivates us to see what else can be done. We don't want to paint another Starry Night, nor quilt another Gee's Bend quilt. We want to take the feeling we derive from these works and create our own majesty. Here is Aretha creating her own "It Was You," first written and recorded by James Brown.
That's Aretha on the piano for "It Was You," and it happened during a rehearsal session complete with full band. Some of the recordings from those rehearsal sessions became the album "Aretha Arrives." When I listen to this album, I realize that even the great ones have to practice. We hear Aretha saying things like: let's start over, and that will be a good one when it's right. What's really telling is the rehearsal rendition of "Dr. Feel Good." She sings it almost on the other side of the beat of the finished project. As an artist, Aretha empowers my many, many tries.
I will probably add more to this post, but I was compelled to write something now because of complete sadness and wanting to celebrate Aretha's life. A candle is lit for Aretha on my Ancestor Altar and if it is as we think it is on the other side, there's much rejoicing going on over there. Here's Aretha with James Cleveland and the Southern California Choir.
P.S. August 17, 2018
I forgot this one, "My Song," which is literally, my song: "your leaving makes my heart beat slow and slow. . ." Aretha on the piano, "you left me, singing a song."
This is a blog about how we make things.