It’s been about four months, and I still haven’t done the full-on-ugly-cry over Aretha Franklin’s passing. I don’t know if that’s because so many of my vocal heroes (as well as family and friends) have passed away in recent years that I’ve grown numb, in a way… or if, because the world keeps turning, and stuff still has to get done, I haven’t afforded myself the opportunity to sit and really focus on the fact that Aretha Franklin was actually mortal and is now, in fact, gone.
When Sarah Vaughan passed away in 1990, I remember driving up and down Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park, crying like a two-year-old, only stopping long enough to blow my nose. This morning, I got the news that Nancy Wilson passed away late last night. As the current saying goes, I just can’t…
I was two years old when Aretha Franklin’s 1967 cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” was released. I would turn three that December. I can’t recall the first time I heard “Respect” but I know I heard her version before I ever heard Redding’s original recording. In fact, while I can’t say when I first heard any of Aretha’s records, I can say that I can’t recall a time when I did not know her voice.
In the days and weeks following her Aug. 16 death, I read a lot of tributes from celebrities and Aretha fans and, if I had to take issue with anyone’s thoughts at all, it would be where people wrote about “doing housework” to her records. And okay, I get the concept of maybe being inspired by the grooves of her more danceable records to move around with the duster in hand. But hearing Aretha, even when I was very young, made me more inclined to sit down and listen to what she had laid down on the record. Not only to her own Spirit-filled vocal athleticism, but to the harmonies and rhythmic call and response of the backup vocals.
I don’t know if “kids today” get what a voice like Aretha Franklin’s means to people in my generation who grew up listening to her. I don’t know that they get the historical importance of her voice as we did when we were “kids today”. I’ve heard older people say that a voice like Aretha’s comes along once in a generation – like Mahalia Jackson’s, or Ella Fitzgerald’s, or Leontyne Price’s voices did before her.
Aretha also hit her stride as Black people were coming into a self-awareness and self-appreciation in the 60s, and the rise of Soul music as a genre. Her voice reflected that awareness which led her to be declared the Queen of Soul. During the week of her passing, I read (or heard) someone say that generations of ancestors sang through Aretha’s voice. I totally hear that in her records, especially on the Amazing Grace album.
In this time of so-called singers relying on Auto-Tune pitch-correction, studio production, and stage antics to compensate for their lack of actual vocal talent or ability, it’s difficult to know if any of the younger crowd appreciate the actual physical work, as well as talent, that goes into singing well, let alone singing extraordinarily well as Aretha did.
To me, the best singers have always been the ones that are able to vocally get a message over to you without you having to look-at-me-look-at-me-look-at-me. Aretha was one of those singers. I guess that’s why I never gave into the debates that would arise from time to time about her weight fluctuations or her choice of wardrobe for a TV appearance. The only thing that ever bothered me about Aretha was when her decades of smoking took their toll on her once bell-clear tones and wide range, and I was glad when she finally quit.
The good news is that her records are still with us. We can pull them out anytime we want or need to, play them, analyze and discuss what we hear with our grown-up and trained ears. Or, better yet, we can just listen to her sing her way on through… Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to do the ugly-cry, you know… yet. She may have been mortal, but her voice lives forever. Long live the Queen. #RunningOutOfHeroes