This morning I listened to a rare interview with Aretha Franklin, talking about what it was like growing up the daughter of a celebrated pastor who was close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr., and who routinely hosted Nat King Cole and others of his ilk in the Franklin home. The interview included an excerpt of a young Aretha Franklin singing a gospel standard, when she was about the same age, give or take, as I was when I was learning to coexist with my public junior high school colleagues across town from our whitewashed Memphis suburb, and before I fully realized the gulf that separated some of us was too wide to cross, with rare exceptions. The young Aretha Franklin was a musical savant, and that is all, whatever her roots and however she found her way into the industry.
I was five when Aretha was belting out ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ over the air waves, but woefully unaware. Same goes for ‘Think,’ (Think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me!) Nope, not on my radar, nor were scores of others. In those days I was still smitten with ‘High-on-a-hill-lived-a-lonely-goatherd,’ only just getting a first inkling of Mr. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, and Respighi’s La Boutique Fantasque, thanks to a wonderful narrated recording my Uncle Stan gave me when I was not yet old enough to read.
In 1968 I was also unaware of something called the Civil Rights Movement, had no clue who Martin Luther King, Jr., was, knew nothing of the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, only that the National Guard were stationed on Memphis street corners when we moved there, a thing that scared the bejeezus out of my mama. Dad had recently graduated from the University of Tennessee and taken a job at Buckeye Cellulose in Memphis straight out of college, in short order schlepping his young family across our parallelogram-shaped state, from the Smoky Mountains in the east, to the flatlands of the Mississippi River Valley in the west, where I would finish growing up.
Aretha Franklin—closely tied to civil rights and King—although firmly rooted in the gospel music of the church, grew up listening to all kinds of music, because her pastor father who raised her alone from the time she was ten liked all kinds of music. What routinely filled the modest living room in our little bungalow rental in Memphis, from a turntable that spun out standards by the likes of Nat King Cole and the Coasters, was almost certainly music she knew. There was some decidedly white-boy music in the mix to be sure, which at the time included the Kingston Trio but would soon be dominated by a certain foursome who hailed from Liverpool (I was allowed to fall asleep to the strains of ‘Penny-Lane-there-is-a-barber-showing-photographs,’ turned down low, if I promised not to fight my afternoon nap). But the Beatles were no strangers to the distinctly American R&B sound—and Elvis shamelessly tried to hijack it, although he never made the cut on our living room playlist. Aretha Franklin’s music was not so far removed, after all, from what I heard as a five- or six-year-old in Memphis, even if Liverpool and Detroit were worlds away from each other.
In the 1970s I finally started listening to vernacular music that mattered, but R&B in Memphis at the time felt more about Marvin Gaye and Al Green, maybe Gladys Knight and the Pips. I can’t honestly recall latching onto Aretha Franklin’s classics until I was in my mid-twenties or so, when I finally ‘discovered’ so many other R&B greats whose music had been all around me but I somehow missed, aside from the stray crossover hit that enjoyed occasional play on a top-40 pop station. In my twenties this oversight dawned on me. Aretha Franklin’s music, though, was not for children: this woman was singing about life in a way that could truly resonate only with grownup men and women (try explaining what it feels like to be a ‘natural woman’ to a 14-year-old girl—it’s even a bit of a stretch for a 25-year-old). And after listening to her explain that man trouble inspired ‘Think,’ one can almost imagine Aretha answering Gaye’s ‘Let’s get it on’ with ‘I ain’t no psychiatrist, I ain’t no doctor with degrees, it don’t take too much high IQs to see what you’re doin’ to me.’ <cue head bobble and finger wagging ‘tude> They both have my undivided attention.
In her later career I caught snippets of Aretha from time to time when she appeared on this gala-style television special or that, or some glossy music awards or Christmas show, often sharing the stage with other giants, but always with a presence the rest of the music world could only hope to emulate, and still never quite achieve: Aretha Franklin, you could tell, changed the atmospheric pressure of a space simply by standing in it. She always struck me as the kind of woman who never suffered fools gladly, and yet carried off her queen-of-soul status with such elegance and intelligence: Aretha had class, you could tell.
What may finally be the most impressive thing, about Aretha Franklin, though, is her willingness to go with the flow, adapt to the changing landscape. When ‘Freeway of Love’ was released in 1985, I was all in: I wore out that tape (yes, cassette tape), wailing to it joyously, if off key.
Aretha Franklin’s music was, is, and always will be relevant. And that is a claim few can make. I leave you with a monumental performance that represents a beautiful collision of two worlds.