It is as simple as that. Aretha made me.
After the 5th (or so) show was cancelled (and not rescheduled) earlier this year, I could feel it and painfully realized I might soon need to write this. I’d been on and off concerned since last year. At Aretha Franklin’s final public appearance in November at Elton John’s AIDS Gala, she looked gaunt. It was very noticeable. She was arguably the thinnest she’d been since the 70s, but she didn’t look healthy as she had in recent years. I held out hope. My idol is a fighter, and she had Jesus on her side. The woman was unstoppable. Aretha Franklin was singular.
Aretha showed me the way to soulville. Aretha taught me to spell R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Aretha made me love music. Aretha was and will forever be the center of my musical universe.
Aretha Franklin became my idol in 1998, a few months before my 8th birthday. My dad put her on and told me to listen. As I sat in the backseat of our Volvo, I was captivated, obsessed, and enamored. That voice. Aretha’s voice is beyond words. There is no other like it. She conjures up notes, riffs, and runs that infiltrate the depths of your emotions, and thens she twists them in and out as no other singer can. Trying to find a singer who isn’t even indirectly inspired by Aretha Franklin is impossible. That is a testament to her unparalleled greatness.
I picked the best year to become an Aretha fanatic. She was revving up to release her first album in 7 years, A Rose Is Still A Rose, and she was doing all the rounds to promote it. Though it wasn’t until June 24, 2000 that I would finally see her live for the first of over a dozen times, I did my due diligence. My dad started taking me recording shopping in Greenwich Village (Revolver Records on 8th Street was always the first stop) and I built my Aretha record collection. I had classics, obscurities, compilations, singles and beyond. I also tortured my parents when the record club mailings would arrive, promptly filling them out with EVERY Aretha cd available. I went all the way in on my Aretha obsession. It would take me 20 years to get every Aretha album on vinyl, but I did it (and even got acknowledged by Aretha’s Twitter for it). Over the years, Aretha continued to enrapture me. The deeper you dig into her discography, the more gems you find. Beyond “Respect,” “Natural Woman” and “I Say A Little Prayer” are “Oh My Oh My, I’m A Fool For You Baby,” “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” (my favorite), and “Call Me”. Even deeper are serious gems like “First Snow In Kokomo,” “No, No, I’m Losing You” and “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” She covered so much ground musically: jazz, pop, soul, R&B, dance, gospel, hip hop, rock, OPERA. Aside from heavy metal, there’s very little Aretha didn’t touch musically.
Queen of Covers
Just look at the endless songs Aretha Franklin covered. She took every single one and owned them, at times instilling fear in their originators. Otis Redding famously heard Aretha cover his “Respect” and simply said “that girl stole this song from me.” Paul Simon called Aretha’s reading of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” his favorite version. Dionne Warwick did “I Say A Little Prayer” first, but Aretha did it better. Same goes for the life she breathed into Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks Of My Tears” and even West Side Story’s “Somewhere”. And that’s why John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote “Let It Be” for Aretha. Beyond being the greatest singer of all time, Aretha was a first class musician with an impeccable ear. She was a self-taught pianist. Self. Taught. She played and wrote by ear. As any musician will attest, discovering that gift at such a young age proves Aretha as a prodigy. Her ear didn’t stop there. She helped arrange many of her big hits, most notably the background vocals on “Respect” and added the iconic spelling of the word to her version.
Call Me, The Moment, You Get There
And then there’s Aretha’s songwriting. While she didn’t write all of her hits (she sang each song so well that may come as a surprise), Aretha wrote more than enough that the Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame should be scratching their heads as to why she isn’t sitting in their hall yet. “Think,” “Rock Steady,” “Call Me” and “Dr. Feelgood” are just a few of the big hits she wrote. Then there are others, such as the criminally overlooked “First Snow In Kokomo”, Aretha’s first (and only) song without rhythm. Her role as observer over Kokomo is staggering. Such is her development of ”Call Me” simply from seeing lovers depart one another in a park and say “I love you! Call me, the moment you get there.”
Aretha In Concert
Aretha’s recordings are treasures, but her live performances excelled beyond the confines of the recording studio. When Aretha got in front of an audience, she devoured their energy to take her performances to new highs. Even in her later years, Aretha would kick off her shoes and jump and dance around when she caught the spirit. She never missed a beat. And when she sat down in front of a piano at a show, especially for “Dr. Feelgood” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water”?! That was the closest you could possibly get to God, because it was a holy and otherworldly experience. I told every single person I met to go see Aretha live. I even brought my best friend, who’s a metal-head to see Aretha, because you needed to see Aretha. To be in the presence of that icon, that voice, was necessary at least once. I am so grateful to have been in her presence more times than I can count. This is the only time I heard her sing this, one of my favorites:
The Queen Of Soul
No one could do it like Aretha. She just makes you feel. Period. That’s why I never missed a chance to see her live. That’s why Aretha was able to become a true star not one, not two, but ten albums into her career. Imagine that happening today. It wouldn’t. Aretha Franklin broke every single barrier presented to her. She broke the color barrier. She broke the musical barriers. She won the same Grammy Award 8 years in a row. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She sang at the memorial for the man who declared “I have a dream” and inauguration of the first black president. She sang opera at the Grammy Awards with 15 minutes notice. Aretha Franklin was my idol. She is the reason I am so passionate about music that it becomes physically visible when I’m affected. She is the reason I started writing about music. She will never be forgotten.