Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018, R.I.P

Aug 21, 2018

As with many of you, my Aretha Franklin vigil began with the news of August 13 that she'd entered hospice, and for the next two days I posted some reflections on Lady Soul on Facebook. Then on what proved to be the eve of her death, I listened to her throughout a three-hour drive to Cape Cod and could hardly contain myself. Hers is simply the most powerful-- and versatile-- voice of my lifetime. The line that's resonated most for me over the past ten days is from her 1968 song, "Since You've Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)," where Aretha pleads, "If you walk in that door, I can get up off my knees." For as deeply and inexorably as she was tied to the civil rights and women's liberation movements (Martin Luther King was a family friend at whose funeral she sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand;" "Respect" galvanized feminists), her music was mostly about the wages of love and the pain of abandonment. A simple note of appreciation sent last week by a 70-year-old female friend underscored what made Ree's pleas so universal: "Boy, did she ever get me through some tough times." 

Aretha's power lay not only in her supremely soulful singing, but in the deep blues and gospel harmonies that grounded her piano playing and inspired her voice to soar to its spine-tingling heights. Like Billie Holiday with "love," no one could match Ree's way of singing "Lord." I was 14 when I became aware of Lady Soul through her breakthrough AM radio hits, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," and "Respect," and she remained my number one for at least the next half-dozen years. During that period, I became a fairly hardened blues and jazz convert and found little to embrace on the pop charts, but let's face it, there's a particular vulnerability that virtually all teenagers face and the music business aims for it with laser-like precision. While I hid mine away by hanging as deep in the grown-ups musical alley as I could get, Aretha always pulled me closer to something resembling my true adolescent self. Her take on the Ben E. King classic, "Don't Play That Song for Me," has long impressed me as epitomizing Ree's unique skill at combining gospel gravitas and pop sentimentality, a unique blend that made her music-- and soul music in general-- so powerfully incisive and broadly appealing. 

Aretha wasn't the first r&b singer to pull me in, but I regard her as the figure whose musicianship and pedigreed background as the daughter of the famed Reverend C.L. Franklin made her the ideal conveyor of gospel-infused pop to the mainstream. Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Etta James, Lou Rawls and others paved the way, but Aretha brought it to the masses. Here she is at the age of 14 accompanying herself at the piano on her gospel album, Songs of Faith. Like her father, whose best-selling sermons, "The Eagle Stirreth His Nest" and "The Ressurection," were released on Chess Records, the teenaged Aretha made her debut on the Chicago-based label that's synonymous with blues. 

Aretha was the most successful and least controversial of the gospel singers who made the transition to secular music. Ray Charles and Dinah Washington were denounced for blurring the distinctions between the sacred and the sensual, and the church world despaired over Sam Cooke moving on from the Soul Stirrers to the top of the charts. But notwithstanding his prominence as a Baptist minister, C.L. Franklin welcomed jazz and r&b greats including Dinah Washington, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and James Brown, to the family home in Detroit, and the Mississippi-born preacher respected the blues as a secular counterpart of the gospel tradition. As Aretha wrote in her own defense in a 1961 column for the Amsterdam News, "After all, the blues is a music born out of the slavery day sufferings of my people." Of her father's friendship with B.B. King, she said, "My daddy is B.'s preacher and B. is my daddy's bluesman. It's a beautiful thing." Here from her 1970 album, Spirit in the Dark, she sings B.B.'s biggest hit, "The Thrill Is Gone." Jerry Wexler, her producer at Atlantic, told her biographer David Ritz, "Listen to her deep-fried, deep-funk piano solo on 'Thrill' and you'll understand why I begged her to do an instrumental album."

Aretha's stylistic embrace was amazingly open-armed. In her 1999 interview on Fresh Air, she told Terry Gross that she loved the Charlie Parker records she listened to in her girlhood home, and eventually grew to love the operatic Mario Lanza albums that caused her older sister Erma to cry. She also mentioned the jazz greats Max Roach and Charles Mingus. She said that when she and her sisters heard their friend and mutual heartthrob Sam Cooke on the car radio singing his first crossover hit, "You Send Me," in 1959, "pandemonium" broke out between them and their driver pulled to the side of the road until the girls composed themselves. Aretha sang numerous classic and contemporary blues during her Columbia and Atlantic years in the '60s, and here she is in Sweden singing "Night Life." B.B. King's version of the tune from his 1966 nightclub album Blues Is King has long been the definitive take on the blues ballad writtten by Willie Nelson. But Aretha's beautifully sung and filmed performance of it floors me now, especially with her added verse (@2:03) about how love exacts a high price from those who've lost, but "they might not have loved at all if they had known they couldn't pay the cost." 

Aretha's watershed moment in music came in 1967 with the release of her Atlantic Records debut, I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You. Like Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, John Coltrane's Giant Steps, and Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, it was a pivotal album that marked a commercial and artistic turning point, one that drew heavily on her gospel background and superb gift for self-accompaniment. Under her father's guidance, she'd signed with Columbia Records in 1960 where the legendary talent scout John Hammond groomed her as a jazz-oriented pop singer and produced a series of albums that drew on a potpourri of songs and styles that she sang "in the booth." Precious few strike one as quintessential Aretha, but there are gems among them, including this brilliant performance of Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark."

In 1966, when she was dropped by Columbia, Jerry Wexler, who'd spent his career at Atlantic mining rhythm & blues (a term he coined in 1948), was ready with a contract that included what Aretha told Terry Gross was a "sweet little bonus." He also had a vision for Ree that was founded on an understanding that the root of her genius was in gospel music, that the best way to tap into it was to sit her at the piano, and that she had songwriting gifts that had largely gone untapped by Columbia. Of this early period, Newport Jazz Fest founder George Wein observed, "the true measure of her talent was [not yet] apparent to the uneducated ear." But the scruffy, street-wise Wexler had a much better sense of that true measure, which he saw first in her eyes. 

"I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows," he wrote in his memoir, Rhythm and the Blues. "Her eyes are incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain. Her depressions could be as deep as the dark sea. I don't pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura." He also knew enough to let her sing without interference from the control booth. "She didn't need anyone's critique. Her taste...was flawless. She was only twenty-four and yet had the poise, authority, and confidence of someone who had been singing for sixty years. Her voice was young and vital, but it also came from a place of ancient secret wisdom."

Wexler would have caught a glimpse of that aura three years before her Atlantic debut when she played piano and gave a strong hint of what was to come in her appearance on The Steve Allen Show. The guitarist seen backing her in the studio orchestra was the great Herb Ellis, who'd spent five years with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Like his seasoned colleagues on the band, he applauds the 22-year-old Aretha here at the end of "Won't Be Long."   

I'd first looked forward to seeing Aretha at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1971, but a storming of the gates by hippies demanding free admission on Saturday night ended the fest before Aretha, Miles Davis, T-Bone Walker, Les McCann, Duke Ellington and many others appeared that weekend. The disappointment my friends and I felt that night over the fest's sudden demise is something we still discuss, and in his memoir, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, George Wein wrote that Aretha was let down too. "[Atlantic Records executive] Nesuhi Ertegun," he said, "Noted that Aretha Franklin was especially sorry about the cancelled performance as she had rehearsed four new songs [with saxophonist King Curtis on Saturday] afternoon." 

As it happened, my next chance to see Aretha came several weeks later when she appeared in a Summerthing concert on Boston Common on September 15, 1971. But by that time, King Curtis, who'd been backing Ree with his band, The Kingpins, and had recorded the classic album Aretha Live at the Fillmore West with her in March of that year, had been stabbed to death outside an apartment building he owned on New York's Upper West Side on August 13. His passing was another in the terrible succession of premature deaths then shaking the music world, and there's no telling the impact it had on Aretha. But she gave her all in Boston that night, where her set included "A Natural Woman," the song she'd introduced with such tender conviction on her 1968 album, Lady Soul.

The Queen of Soul famously elicited a tear from President Obama when she sang "A Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015. The song's composer, Carole King, was an honoree, and for an article on Aretha that David Remnick wrote for The New Yorker, King recalled how the song came about. in 1967, she and her husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin were walking down Broadway when Jerry Wexler pulled up beside them in a limousine, lowered the window, and said, "I'm looking for a really big hit for Aretha. How about writing a song called 'A Natural Woman'." In a rush of extraordinary inspiration, they completed the assignment overnight. King added, "I hear these things in my head, where they might go, how they might sound. But I don't have the chops to do it myself. So [hearing Aretha sing it] was like witnessing a dream realized."

My favorite performance of "A Natural Woman" is from Aretha's appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on June 12, 1971, one of the stops on the whirlwind tour she made through the first eight months of that year with King Curtis.

I saw Aretha just once more. It was 32 years later, on June 7, 2003, at a concert in Hartford. I've seen many established musicians over the years rise to unanticipated levels of brilliance long after they would have been excused for mailing it in, but Ree's Bushnell Theater perfornance will always stand as the ultimate in exceeding my wildest expecations. Here's what I wrote about it the following morning. 

We saw Aretha last night at the Bushnell. She gave a spectacular 90-minute performance. Two keyboards, four back-up singers deputized occasionally as percussionists, a big band augmented by members of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Besides the latter, she called the names and hometowns of all the members, a nice touch à la Duke Ellington. Her son Teddy, a favorite of the ladies, plays real good guitar. On "Respect," she sang "Ain't gonna do you wrong," then dropped a register to add a raspy, "Cause I don't wanna." There's something about seeing masters like Aretha add a little something extra that really raises the goose flesh. She opened with a blues, then sang "The House That Jack Built," "Chain of Fools," and "Ain't No Way," as though she was taking part in a gospel caravan. She accompanied herself at the piano for "Spirit in the Dark," which was pure church. On the ride down to Hartford we talked about Otis Redding and how much we all dug his ballads, so it really blew us away when she dropped "Try a Little Tenderness" on us early in the show. She is indisputably Lady Soul, one of the wonders of music, and she wasn't resting on any laurels last night. She looked good, seemed to dig the Hartford vibe, engaged several of the front row patrons, managed some nice moves, and came stage left (about 15 feet from me) on just about every song. She laid an aria on us, and the pop standards "I'll Be Seeing You," and "If Ever I Would Leave You." She sang complete versions of everything-- no medleys. As she enters and departs, a video screen displays a photo album of her career, shots with celebrities, with Jerry Wexler and the Ertugan brothers, a few with "our first black president," as Toni Morrison calls Bill Clinton, and one with Martin Luther King, Jr. that puts it all in perspective.