When an artist the stature of Aretha Franklin dies, there are the usual news -outlet obits detailing career milestones, perhaps a heretofore-unknown fact or two, usually a discography. Always there are the heartfelt remembrances of friends and colleagues. Specials air and the artist's albums sell out.
Weeks pass and life returns to normal. We smile whistfully when next we hear one of their songs and think, that's right - they're gone now.
I want to tell you why Aretha Franklin's death is different. Because she was far more than just the Queen of Soul.
We all know her bio - daughter of a famed Detroit preacher, singing first in the church and then everywhere else. The prejudice encountered early-on. Her work with Dr. King and Jesse Jackson as a voice against racial injustice. Her troubled personal life, the failed marriages, the weight issue, her abject fear of flying. Her influence over practically every musician who came after her.
She was a complicated woman. Yet she was always a lady, full of dignity, class and humor.
Aretha was one of those rare performers who gave so much of herself in her recordings and performances that it transformed the listener, emotionally and even physically. You could not hear that voice and not feel it to the marrow.
(She was also one of those performers who, like Nat King Cole before her, had such blinding vocal talent that you didn't realize that she was also an incredible pianist.)
I was ten years old when I first heard Aretha. The song was Chain of Fools, and never in my life had I heard anything so menacing, so powerful, so .... adult. First came the jangling guitars, then …. that voice.
"For five long years, I thought you were my man…" This woman wasn't taking anybody's shit - except from her cheating chump of a man, because "his lovin' is much too strong." Pretty heady stuff for a whitebread 10 year-old.
And I loved it. I fell in love with her, then and there.
As I got older, I understood her work better as a woman, though we were worlds apart in age, upbringing - everything. No matter - she spoke to us all. The first time I got really dumped, I played I Never Loved a Man until the tape broke. "You're no good…. heartbreaker…. you're a liar ….. and you're a cheat." And then the breathy way she sang, "I ain't never…. loved a man ….. the way that I…. I love you."
Who hasn't been there?
Aretha was the blues, she was soul, she was jazz. God knows, she was the church. Thank Him on bended knee, my babies, because without the latter, there never would have been the former. Steeped in the gospel but drawn to the secular, just like her dear friend, the great Sam Cooke. But she would return to gospel again and again, drawing strength from its infinite well. It can be well-argued that she testified with every breath, in every song. Gospel was her bedrock, in her DNA.
Her voice was alchemy. It had the ability to literally transform you emotionally. Her music still shakes me and often brings me to tears.
The word "diva" has been bandied-about for the past 30 years or so, with various performers vying for the crown - Celine, Whitney, Mariah, Madonna and before them, Barbra, Tina, Diana and Patti. Talented ladies, all. Legends, even.
But there have been only a few true divas - women so supremely talented and iconic that they can level an audience - or render it into gasping awe - with one note, one look, one raise of an eyebrow. The kind of talent that can bring you to your knees.
Edith Piaf. Maria Callas. Judy Garland.
Lest you think the comparison hyperbole, Aretha had the pipes, the skill and the confidence to pull off Puccini's famed Nessun Dorma on the 1998 Grammy broadcast, after Luciano Pavarotti took ill. The Queen of Soul killed singing opera. That, my friends, is divinely-ordained talent.
Aretha may have hated flying, but she taught us all to soar with each magical note. To rise above disappointment, fear and the pain only a foolish heart can bring. Her voice was that of all humanity, from the depths of despair to heaven-bound grace.
I'll leave you with one of my favorites - Aretha's version of the Stevie Wonder-penned Until You Come Back To Me. Pure joy!
Would that she could return.
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Filed under: Music