Saturday, August 18, 2018

Aretha Franklin

They called her "The Queen of Soul", an apt title to be sure. But at the same time it's woefully inadequate, kind of like calling the land formation in northern Arizona, The Grand Canyon. It is a canyon to be sure, and it's grand, there's no denying that, but it's so much more.

Consider this: in 1965 Otis Redding, the man called "The King of Soul" by many, wrote and recorded a song called Respect. In his hands it was a straight-ahead playful little number about a man asking his woman for a little respect when he comes home after a hard day's work, He didn't care what she did during the day, heck, she could even "do him wrong", as long as she gave him his due when he got home. The hook in Redding's version is his cheerful "hey hey hey" playing off a nine note riff from the horn section in the refrain. Granted it's not Redding's best work, for him it's almost a throw-away song, although it did become a hit.

When Aretha Franklin got her hands on the song a couple years later, she turned it on its head. She didn't ask her partner for respect, she demanded it.

The new hook was the call and and respnse between the lead and the backup vocals provided by Franklin's sisters Carolyn and Erma. All my years in the darkroom listening to oldies music provided me the opportunity to learn the backup vocals (I'd never dare sing the lead) to a point where I was convinced that I could have filled in for Carolyn or Erma should the need have ever arisen during one of Aretha's tours.

If you'll just indulge me for a moment:
Aretha: all I'm askin' is for a little respect when you get home
Carolyn, Erma & me:  just a little bit 
Aretha: Hey Baby,
Carolyn, Erma & me:  just a little bit,
Aretha: when you get home 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit,
Aretha: Mister 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit, 
Of course the poor schmo the song is addressed to doesn't get the point so Franklin, her sisters and I have to spell it out for him:
Aretha: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.R-E-S-P-E-C-T,take care, TCB, oh
Carolyn, Erma and me: sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me 
Aretha: A little respect 
Carolyn, Erma and me: sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me sock-it-to-me  
Aretha: Whoa, babe 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit, 
Aretha: A little respect 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit,
Aretha: And I ain't lyin' 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit, 
Carolyn, Erma and me: Re, re, re, re 
Aretha: Start when you come home 
Carolyn, Erma and me: Re, re, re, respect 
Aretha:  Or you might walk in 
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit,
Aretha:  And find out I'm gone  
Carolyn, Erma and me:  just a little bit, 

Like every song Aretha Franklin ever performed, she made this one entirely her own. In interviews she insisted Respect was nothing more than one half of a dialog between a woman and her man, but her fans knew better. In her hands, Respect instantly became an anthem both for the women's movement as well as the Civil Rights movment.

I'm not aware if Aretha Franklin ever sang an overtly political song, (although she did cover Sam Cooke's great lament A Change is Gonna Come). She didn't have to. Just like Respect, people got the message when she repeatedly cried out the word "Freedom" in a song she wrote titled simply, Think.

As we've been celebrating her life that we lost this week, listening to songs she recorded during her amazing career, so many of them bring back memories and could easily be considered my essential Aretha Franklin song. It was hard to pick out one to feature on this post but I came up with a song that turned out to be her breakout number from 1967. Hard to believe but by that time, still only 25, Franklin had already recorded nine albums for Columbia Records, none of them commercially successful. The impressrio at that label, John Hammond, who was largely responsible for making the careers of folks like Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Bob Dylan to name a few, just couldn't quite get it right with Franklin, perhaps trying and failing to make her fit into a mold that worked so well for him before. When Franklin's Columbia contract expired, she signed with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records who made the wise decision of letting her be herself and exploit the solid Gospel music background that formed the backbone of her prodidgious talent.

She brought this song, written by Ronnie Shannon to her first session at Atlantic which took place at the storied FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The story goes that Franklin sat down at the grand piano and the session pianist Spooner Oldham was so taken by her playing that he moved over to the electric keyboard. You can hear him in the opening bars of the tune. Among the other session players who played with Franklin on her first album for Atlantic (also named I Never Loved a Man the Way that I Love You) was the great King Curtis on tenor sax.

Like any great performer of popular music no matter what the genre, Franklin is able to directly touch the heart of her listener. This song in particular, she lays bare just about every conceivable emotion from pain, agner and sadness, to joy and exultation. Anybody who has ever been in love with someone in a difficult relationship (and aren't they all?) can instanntly relate. There are other versions of this song but I have no interest in hearing them as I can't imagine anyone bringing more to it than Aretha Franklin did.

My first memory of Aretha Franklin was alomst fifty years ago to the day, August 26, 1968 to be exact. My family was in the process of moving and during one of our numerous trips between Humboldt Park in the city to our new digs in the suburb of Oak Park, her voice came over the radio as she sang the Star Spangled Banner to officially open the Chicago Democratic National Convention, yes that one. Like every song she ever sang, she made it her own, much to the consternation of several in the hall and elsewhere who were not used to a soulful rendition of that song, including my dad who was mildly appalled. Strangely enough, as we were so engrossed in our move, it is my only direct memory of that turbulent time in my city's history.

By that time, still only 26, Aretha Franklin had already been proclaimed the Queen of Soul, and that performance, admittedly not her best as she flubbed some of the lyrics, didn't slow down her career one bit. In fact her status as American royalty, or as close to it as you can get, meant that she was asked to perform the national anthem dozens of times for significant occasions during her illustirous career. The last time was on November 24, 2016 in her hometown, during the tradional Detroit Lions  nationally televised Thanksgiving Day football game. Despite being advanced in age and already diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Franklin's voice was hardly diminished as she performed perhaps the longest and most soulful rendition of that song ever. Again she had her detractors but I think the general mood of the country by that time was that Aretha Franklin represented this country and what it stands for better than the first verse of an an overwrought ballad with racist tones set to an English drinking song.

Taking a very basic survey asking two people, one of a generation older, my mother, and the other, a generation younger, a colleague at work, I came to the conclusion that Aretha Franklin's is not a timeless voice in the way that say Ella Fitzgerald is or perhaps the Beatles are. Hers is the voice of a particular time and place. Picking a song to represent her may have been a challenge, but it's no challenge to pick the essential voice of my generation. In an era filled with notable candidates, a pantheon of performing artists whose work could easily be chosen to fill the role as the voice of a generation, and will gladly tell you so themselves, one voice stands above the rest. Aretha Franklin's powerful, unrelenting voice was the heart, the soul and the consciousness of  my generation who came of age during the sixties and early seventies.

No mere pantheon of music's greatest stars could ever contain Aretha Franklin, she was that good.

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