The Queen of Soul is ailing. Aretha Franklin has pancreatic cancer.
The mind quickly rifles through frame images of Michael Landon, Patrick Swayze, as well as a few other ‘real’ people…flesh and blood folks that I’ve known….fellas with whom I’ve watched a ball game or shared a beer. Once anyway… before the dreaded diagnosis. No, pancreatic cancer is not a guillotine, but the odds are impossibly long. Mostly they are out of sight.
A re-play of the announcement runs through my head. It is no hoax, no cruel prank. Lyrics from a signature Aretha Franklin song now ring out in my head. “Hey Mister, don’t play that song for me… I don’t want to hear it.”1
On Legends and Character Assassination
The legend is that Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and Diana (nee Diane) Ross were childhood playmates. My God, what their high school musical must’ve been like! One wonders whether the mothers of post World War II Detroit fed their children some special Motor City ‘blend’ reserved for prodigies?
I hear Aretha Franklin the first time, three generations ago. Nearly so anyway. It’s just after the untimely demise of American Camelot. The nation is in the maelstrom of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and Lyndon Johnson’s attempt at a Great Society.
You’re no good, heart breaker
You’re a liar and you’re a cheat
I don’t know why I let you do these things to me
My friends keep telling me you’re no good
But they don’t know that I’d leave you if I could
I guess I’m uptight but I’m stuck like glue
Cause I never, I never,
I never, no no Loved a man the way that I, I love you
The lyrics are from “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You.” The song is written by Ronnie Roosevelt Shannon and is an homage to beugarded love and heartbreak. It is perhaps more ‘bluesy’ than rhythm and bluesy, but as sung by a twenty-six year old Aretha Franklin, character assassination never sounded so… so… well… so… ‘damn appealing’.
At the time, a young ‘Billy the Kid Cantrell’ is about 15 or 16 and I listen to this track for what must’ve been a million times. My adolescent hormones are raging and because of the song –and Ms. Franklin singing it– I can’t wait to grow up to become, Bill the Man…maybe even the Billy the Cad, if it means that Aretha Franklin is the woman spreadin’ the allegations.
In those days, Aretha has a first and a last name. She is, as a Nina Simone song suggests, “…young, gifted, and black” — but not yet the first name only icon that she’ll become. But even then, in those post-Camelot days, her formula for success is “KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid)”. Perhaps no one, before or since, ‘kisses’ better than Lady Soul: some good words, a good melody, Aretha tickling the ivories (that she’s learned to play ‘by ear’) and translating the songwriter’s lyrics the way that she hears them. Who cares what the songwriter may have really meant, it’s whatever Aretha says it is. (“I sing to realists; people who accept it like it is.”- Aretha Franklin)
On stage, her formula is also the same then as it is now: no histrionics, little of the exceptional choreography associated with the Detroit brand of patent leather soul, no strobe lights, no smoke, no mirrors, no special effects. Rather it’s a baby grand piano, a house band, three unbilled back-up singers, a fistful of songs and ‘hang on’ for the vocal ride. Yep, there’s elegance in simplicity.
Over three generations, Franklin, a preacher’s kid from Detroit, beats the odds and the obstacles of the music business. She outlasts countless one hit wonders, several record companies, two husbands, financial difficulties, illness and a myriad of other crises. Like Jordan, like Unitas, like Bing, Michael, and Sinatra, she becomes the one name icon…and she also takes us along for the ride. Along the way, the woman who says “I’m the lady next door when I’m not onstage..” teaches us, in her own way, about “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” She preaches to us to “Think” and tells us what it feels like to be a “Natural Woman.” If you happen to be male and have enough sense to pay attention, she even tells you what (presumably ) natural men need to do in order to love and be loved by their natural woman… if you have sense enough to pay attention.
Regal titles are most often unearned. The inhabitants of the House of Windsor are a result of ‘lucky sperm’, one thinks. Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys is the result of marketing hyperbole.
Aretha was, long ago, dubbed ‘the Queen” of what is commonly termed as ‘soul music’. The title is not nearly broad enough though. This Queen reigns over more than one musical genre. Consider that a British rock and roll magazine, Mojo, put her at the top of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, right above Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, John Lennon and Billie Holiday.2 That’s a solid group to have looking up to you. Aretha Franklin is more aptly dubbed the Queen of Soul… and Song.
A view of the discography reveals that only a handful of tunes that we have come to think of as ‘Aretha Franklin songs’ were originally written by anyone whose last name is Franklin. Mostly they are written by Don Covay, Ronnie Shannon, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, Carol King, Leon Huff, Kenny Gamble Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson…and a plethora of others.
So between bouts – i.e. between winning winning 20 Grammy’s , making a truck load of albums and being heard by infinite pairs of ears – Aretha also covers an endless cache of songs first popularized by others. ‘Covering’ songs is a dangerous… dicey.. risky business for a performing artist. Most often the new interpreter flails about and misses the mark3.In uncanny fashion though, Aretha unfailingly (and “unfailingly”!) bends the words, chords and melodies of the covered tune to her vocal will. Sometimes you can hear her gospel roots. At other times, you can hear the brass horned vestiges of her days recording in Muscle Shoals. It is also not uncommon to hear her be her own accompanist. (As a pianist, she’s reminiscent of Count Basie.) Mostly though you hear Aretha… and that voice… that voice.
The covered song, now becomes an Aretha Franklin song. “Don’t Play That Song For Me,” one of her signature hits was originally made popular by Ben E. King4. After Aretha changes the tempo and a few chords — putting her brand on it… well, it’s just isn’t Ben’s song anymore. It just isn’t.
There other songs too that she has lovingly co-opted and we now think of them as Aretha’s… not Carol’s or Otis’ or Ben’s or Felix’s, etc. It was Aretha’s idea to cover the song, RESPECT. Franklin added the chorus and bridge to what was a rough hewn, raw, 1965 song written by Otis Redding. It was Aretha who came up with the new arrangement as well as the tag line “Sock it to me.” Music industry insiders recall that when Redding first heard Aretha’s version, he was “blown away” and said “I’ve just lost my song.” He had.
Check out her interpretation of “A Brand New Me.” The song, written by Jerry Butler, Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble, was a minor hit in the late Sixties for British-born, Dusty Springfield. Sorry Dusty, no one sings – or plays piano on–this song better than the Queen of Soul.
James Brown, Pavorotti, Bachrach, Ashford and Simpson, Smokey, Sinatra…The Queen of Soul..and Song sings them all. One can visualize Aretha singing the phone book and making it a hit.
Some anonymous Internet admirer once said of Aretha Franklin: “Count (Basie) and Duke (Ellington) couldn’t sing like that and Frank (Sinatra) and Billy (Strayhorn) couldn’t play that sweet.” Methinks that “Anonymous” was ‘on the money’. In the end, “talent will out” –i.e. rise to the top as it were. Aretha’s certainly did. Twenty Grammy’s, Twenty No.1 R&B hit records. A bazillion records sold. Looking back, it all seems so easy… so inevitable..to us, anyway… the rest of us, the Queen of Soul and Song’s subjects. We only went along for the ride though. She carried us.
The real truth is that “things” always look easier in retrospect. After all, the task is done. A higher truth is that Aretha’s incumbent mission is different, the task more daunting.
In our salad days, when we were all much younger, Billy the Kid makes on-air requests to Paul Drew, the nightime record spinner at WAKE Radio in Atlanta (and later, WQXI, “Quixie in Dixie”). A young Billy pleads with the Jivemaster over the Request-line on WIGO or Alley Pat on WAOK to play some Aretha Franklin song, a hit at the time. The request is a song, dedicated to some long ago, Tenth Grade ‘honey” at Turner High, or East Atlanta or Murphy High, Therrell, Druid Hills or maybe Harper High. Paul or Pat or the Jivemaster always come through for Billy the Kid, even if Billy’s puppy love goes unrequited.
Will’s present day plea circumvents the Jivemaster or any of ’em. It’s made directy to The Queen of Soul… and Song herself.
Get well Aretha! Please get well. For you… for me… for the rest of us. You are the best. Just simply the goddamn best. Get well.5
2Thanks “masses” to frequent Dew contributor, Jeff Cochran for assistance with fact checking on this article. Cochran, I am convinced, knows more about the music business than anyone — living or dead — has a right to know.
© Copyright 2011 Will Cantrell