I had planned to write on another topic this week, but I have been stopped in my tracks by the death of Aretha Franklin. Today’s blog is not just a tribute, rather it is a paean to purpose and meaning across the lifespan.
Was there ever any doubt that Aretha’s voice would transport her from the halls of her father’s Baptist Church to the world’s stage? Only the internal self-doubt that so many of us who are far less gifted wrestle with. Aretha’s life was never easy. It was always blessed. And isn’t that a formula we can all adopt?
Growing up Black in Detroit in the heyday of Motown and post-war segregation, this child of God began her career singing and praising the Lord. This foundational experience was one of the sustaining threads of her musical career and life. The contradictions inherent in a culture that excluded her from succeeding at anything but performing plagued her as she grew up. Yet she transcended these secular bonds and in spite of being a Black woman in a White Man’s world, her vitality and voice burst through and she triumphed.
And oh how we benefited from that! Her music defined more than one generation. RESPECT…. Chain of Fools . . . Afro’s and hoop earrings. Back-up singers who could keep up with this angel in harmony and synchronized movements, all while wearing tight fitting sequined dresses and heels. Then on to appearances at the White House, Kennedy Center, singing opera, interviews with Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes. And at inaugurations for three Presidents.
And the pain. Bad marriages to bad men. People who took advantage of her and that incredible, steely-eyed, self-assured presence when confronted by supercilious interviewers. Honestly, there is nothing more wonderful than the scene from Murphy Brown where Murphy and Aretha share time at a grand piano singing Carole King’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”.
But that wasn’t all. As Aretha aged, so did her music. Like fine wine, she held to her blend of gospel, soul, and R & B, and weathered Disco, the bubblegum of the 80’s and rap. She found ways to mentor, inspire, and collaborate with others resulting in some of the finest studio recordings ever made. All this while fighting issues with weight gain and loss, exhaustion, financial ups and downs, and raising four sons.
Her music was a backdrop to the Boomer’s coming of age. I remember hearing “Day Dreaming and Thinking of You” for the first time sitting in a classmate’s room in college. I knew Mahalia. I knew Martha and the Vandellas. I knew Smokey. I thought I knew a little something about Black music. But, oh my goodness. “Daydreaming” blew me away.
And oh, the sensuality of her music. She put us ALL in the mood. Set the stage for ecstasy and fantasy lovers and real ones, too. She never disappointed. Hers was the backdrop to taking things all the way and then coming back down to earth.
Learning her biographical history was secondary to hearing how life had pushed, pulled, punctured, and peppered her and all of that was in her music. She never found the “Right Man”, but in searching for him, she wrote the score for our generation’s loves and losses. This included pain and sorrow over the assassinations of MLK and Robert Kennedy. And her life’s arc included the triumph of the election of Barack Obama. We shared these events with her and through her music. The music providing a bookmark and trigger for the emotional intensity of the times we lived in.
Her artistry crossed genres. Blues, Gospel, jazz, R&B, opera. Pianist, singer, song writer, arranger, performer. Her immense gifts were acknowledged by her peers with 18 Grammys. She was recognized by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone, and the Kennedy Center honors. Her government gave her the Medal of Freedom and a National Arts Medal. She sang at the inauguration of three Presidents, and none more gracefully than Barack Obama.
As Aretha aged, her ability to sing never wavered, but her body broke down. Her voice continued to soar, but she made fewer and fewer appearances. Her world grew smaller and she returned to Detroit and its familiar environs. We aged with her. The music now brought back memories of good times with friends and lovers who were no longer with us. And for those who remained, we shared those memories.
We commiserated with her as her physical condition went up and down, along with her weight. We cringed when we saw her at her most thin, thinking not that she had successfully lost the weight, but worrying, as we do at this age, that it was due to cancer. And, in learning what was going on, we also marveled at how she would find ways to make one more appearance and share that exquisite voice and phrasing.
And now all we have left are her recordings and memories. She was only 76. This is too young. We are now greedy and expecting our heroes to last to 80 at least. And yet, and some level we understand. Her candle burned brightly to the end. We each claimed her as our own, having been touched so deeply by her.
We will miss you, Aretha.