Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Daughter of a preacher man:
Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

NEVER MIND singing right — singing to move people to screams and tears: The literal act of singing itself is one of the more complicated feats of human physiology. Sparked by a written or remembered series of notes (a melody) and an equally recallable series of words and phrases (a lyric), the lungs have to work with the diaphragm, the throat’s got to be in concert with the teeth, the tongue must be in a groove with the nasal passages — all of it’s got to be there and ready and available at the right time, again and again. I don’t mean humming. That’s not singing. I mean the full, open-throated experience of bringing a song to life (however well or poorly it’s done esthetically).

And then, after all of that ... you’ve gotta Say Something. The rote mechanical actions of the body must be in contact with and in service to that ineffable, je ne sais quoi aspect of emotion, spirit — the intangible but very real thing that makes singing worth listening to, worth doing, in the first place.

With music, like most things, it’s said, it’s best to learn it while you’re young. Mozart got that straight away, writing his first composition at the age of five. Leonard Bernstein found his “contract with life” in a hallway with a few strikes of piano keys. Duke Ellington started playing piano at the age of seven, earning the nickname “the Duke” for his uncommon dapper grace.

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Aretha Franklin was similarly possessed of a talent beyond her years. She Said Something from the beginning.

She got that beginning at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, singing at the behest of her father, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn (C.L.) Franklin, who broke her in as a featured soloist during Sunday services after Aretha’s mother passed. Aretha was 10 years old.

Word got around. No less a personage than Dinah Washington said, after seeing Aretha perform at the church, that the young Aretha, then 12-years old, was “the next one,” the next one to carry forward the lineage of the great singers of our time, bringing the blues savvy of Bessie Smith, the invention of Ella Fitzgerald, and the gospel chops of Mahalia Jackson forward to a new generation.

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MAKING THAT journey was hardly a straight-line event. Aretha had her life issues, like the rest of us, the complications that (as it turned out) were indispensable to her music being what it is. A baby mama at the age of 12, she had her second child, by a different father, at 14. She left Detroit for New York City at the age of 18, leaving the children behind. While in NYC, she met and married Ted White, who would become her manager, and the father of her third child.

There were deviations from the music that would power her to stardom. She signed an early contract with Columbia Records, which recognized her immense vocal talent and then misplaced it — placing Aretha in the studio to record music in a variety of styles, from jazz to ballads. Her first single for Columbia, “Today I Sing the Blues” (produced by the legendary John Hammond) came out in the fall of 1960.

She hid her stride in the mid-60’s, with a string of singles that established her as the voice to be reckoned with: "Chain of Fools", "Think", "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" and "I Say a Little Prayer" all pointed to Aretha as a singular voice in popular music. But in 1967, one song (written by Otis Redding) made her a kind of North Star in both pop culture, feminism, and emerging social activism.

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OTIS REDDING said “that girl stole that song from me," and he was right: “Respect,” a song he wrote and recorded two years earlier, was a vastly different animal in Aretha’s capable hands. Re-recorded on Valentine’s Day 1967, the song was (like so many things) a happy accident that yielded results no one could anticipate, but whose power and impact exceeded expectations.

Unlike other songs that became feminist anthems, such as Helen Reddy’s position paper, “I Am Woman,” Aretha’s “Respect” was a genial hijacking of a song whose origins reinforced male authority. When she lifted it, and imbued it with a new arrangement and tweaked lyrics, it was a kind of poetic justice of the sexes.

NPR reported: “The track was actually a clever gender-bending ... [the] original reinforced the traditional family structure of the time: Man works all day, brings money home to wife and demands her respect in return.

“Franklin's version blew that structure to bits. For one, Redding's song doesn't spell out ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ like Franklin's does. It also doesn't have the backup singers and their clever interplay. So much of what made ‘Respect’ a hit — and an anthem — came from Franklin's rearrangement.”

And what started as a feminist benchmark took on other resonance in the crucible days of the civil rights movement. It was inescapably logical: if a black woman could demand respect from her companion, black people could demand respect from their country. The song’s title, and especially when you spelled it out letter by letter, dovetailed perfectly with the civil rights era (even as it beat James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” to the radio by more than a year).

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She’s always had a sense of timing, in the way she wrote a song or sang a song _ even in the way she made her exit from this plane, on Thursday, Aug. 16, of advanced pancreatic cancer, at the age of 76. Aretha passed the same day as Babe Ruth (in 1948) and Elvis Presley (in 1977).

For the longest time, the only one who could ever reach us was the daughter of a preacher man. And she’s not done reaching us yet. Her funeral is set for Aug. 31, after two days of Aretha lying in honor at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, in Detroit. All that comes before a planned all-star tribute concert set for Nov. 14, at Madison Square Garden in New York.

And NASA reminded us last week how much Aretha will be the celestial body, if not the sun, that brightens our lives into the future. The U.S. space exploration agency, “saddened by the loss,” tweeted late last week that “Asteroid 249516 Aretha, found by our NEOWISE mission and named after the singer to commemorate the #QueenOfSoul, will keep orbiting beyond Mars.”

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ALL RISE. The honorable court of public opinion is in session. It is the judgment of this court that on Thursday, August the sixteenth, the light of our lives was irrevocably dimmed and humbled by the passing from our time and space of one Aretha Louise Franklin, Regent of Emotion, Empress of the Spirit, Voice Among Voices, the Queen of Soul.

It is further the judgment of this court that, by acclimation, from this day forward, songs of any kind, make or description will pale by comparison, and that the symphony of our lives will never sound quite the same again.

So say we all.

Image credits: Aretha: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images. "Electrifying" album cover: eBay/Columbia Records. Respect 45 rpm label: Atlantic Records. Aretha tweet: @NASA. Theater marquees: @MMFlint.

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