Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul, no doubt, but it’s simpler just to call her Queen
Never shying away from singing about the black experience, Aretha was popular but never sold the black community short or herself out
I lit a couple of candles, grabbed a bottle of wine and poured myself a modest glass of cabernet. Aretha Franklin was in hospice care, and I decided to start celebrating her life with “Dr. Feelgood” from her first live album, Aretha in Paris, recorded in 1968. Aretha hits a note at the 3:39 mark that epitomizes why she is referred to as the Queen of Soul. But it’s her phrasing of this line that makes the argument that she should simply be called Queen …
Oh, yeah, oh good God of mine
And the man sure makes me feel real, good
In the hands of a lesser talent, that line registers as campy or falls on its face. The crowd at Paris’ historic Olympic Theater erupted into applause because of the precision with which Aretha intertwined her desire and her helplessness into the melodic confession. The result: empathy. This gift is what made Aretha, Aretha. Her pain was ours. Her joy was ours. Her craving for Dr. Feelgood made us all patients in need of care.
Thirty years later she would take her experiences from “Dr. Feelgood” and in her 1998 hit “A Rose Is Still A Rose” tell a hurting young lady:
Don’t believe that life is over
Just because your man is gone
Girl, love yourself enough to know
Without him your life goes on
“Rose” would serve to be her last Top 40 hit, but like much of her music, it doesn’t sound dated because her prescient tone was timeless.
Music critics can argue ad nauseam about whose voice was technically better, but I can’t think of a single recording artist whose phrasing of a song was more universal. The breath was always taken at the right moment; the sense of urgency always hit on the right word; the ad libs, hums and skats … impeccably placed. No matter the genre, no matter the era, Aretha instinctively knew what the listener needed to identify with the take she was spinning. Otis Redding sang “Respect”; Aretha commanded it while somehow encouraging all of us to do the same.
Never shying away from singing about the black experience, Aretha was popular but never sold the black community short or herself out. This is why “Today I Sing the Blues” still makes me shake my head in agreement; “Rock Steady” still makes me dance; “How I Got Over” still makes me lift my hands in worship to a God who clearly sent this angelic voice to provide a guttural response to life’s call. Many artists have had recording careers spanning decades. But few have done so able to speak specifically to each generation of listener as succinctly as her. Other aging superstar singers clumsily try to stay relevant by embracing what’s hot. Aretha arrogantly, and correctly, assumed her ability to sonically weave the story of our lives was what was hot.
I poured another glass of wine, this one not as modest as the one before. I select “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” her duet with Annie Lennox. Released in 1985, it could very well have served as a theme song for the present-day #MeToo movement. The same could have been said about 1967’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”
They say it’s a man’s world
But you can’t prove that by me
And as long as we’re together baby
Show some respect for me
The news of Aretha’s passing was hard to hear but not entirely shocking. She was 76, had battled alcoholism and weight issues and was a chain smoker for decades. She had reportedly been in and out of hospital since 2010 for an assortment of ailments, including cancer.
A voice can be timeless, but a body cannot.
After I poured my third glass of wine, I selected “Something He Can Feel.” As generations before call music like that: grown folks music. Afterward “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me,” her 1987 duet with George Michael, finds itself on my speakers. At the time he was trying to distance himself from the bubble gum image of Wham! In fact, after the single hit No. 1, he released “I Want Your Sex” and he was on his way. Whitney Houston, Tony Bennett and many other legends have done duets with Aretha. What made her so special was that she did not do these duets with them.
They held on tight and tried to do them with her.
In a way, we’ve all been doing duets with her. Be it fan, critic, listener — Aretha has always been the orchestrator of the experience. Others may have been able to hit the same note, but not many can hit the kind of chord that makes us all feel.
Hard to imagine many more will.