Long Live the Queen

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

Cords/Chords/Discord

I heard someone use this phrase the other day which struck me in a big way: Living in the context of constant crisis. In our current climate of discord and conflict, I wonder where in the world people aren’t living in/with constant crisis. And yet, hearing someone say that phrase really took me aback, and I heard myself say, “Wow” out loud.

The Sunday evening before I heard that phrase, I watched the “final episode” of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown which focused on the lower east side of Manhattan where Bourdain had spent time among punk rock and early hip-hop artists before they broke big commercially. It was really cool to see Debbie Harry on TV, by the way. I remembered being quite the Blondie fan until I heard Pat Benatar’s bel canto-trained voice rocking my radio, but I digress… or maybe I don’t.

The final Parts Unknown episode was disturbing to me, much more so than the previous one which went behind the scenes of the show with Bourdain and his crew. The final episode was well-produced – as the whole series was (along with its predecessors No Reservations and The Layover) – and captured that punk rock attitudinal vibe that made Bourdain … well, Bourdain. Still, it was disturbing. The episode itself was disturbing as well as the fact that it was the series finale. I felt a great sense of unease while watching it and, when it was over, I was left with this anxious feeling like I needed to watch or listen to something else that would be reassuring.

Those who trained me as a singer/performer had the work ethic that artists should provide an escape from the chaos and confusion in the world; The show-must-go-on mentality. The “punk-rockers” seemed to feed off the chaos around them as well as the anti-establishment vibe of the late 70s. They seemed to let disorder influence their art as well as how they presented themselves as artists, and they had an audience that appreciated that, and Bourdain was in that audience; a part of that scene. So, I guess, the final Bourdain episode was supposed to be disturbing, as punk rock was disturbing to the status quo music culture, and as the circumstance of Bourdain’s death is disturbing.

Anyway, what might be disturbing to me may be motivating to someone else. As a singer, however, I would prefer the crisis factor to be at a minimum or, you know… non-existent. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we currently live in. If the singer is “living in the context of constant crisis,” the challenge becomes how to keep that constant crisis from affecting them vocally so that the singer sings well. Top and bottom line, the singer needs to sing well – as well as they are physically/vocally able to sing – in a given moment, regardless of whatever crisis is going on around them. But then, maybe that’s just me. Also… I miss Bourdain.

What Is Memorable?

I will not remember what you wore on your gig. I won’t remember how your makeup looked, or if you had any on at all. I won’t remember if you had on high heeled shoes and took them off during your show. I won’t remember how your hair (or wig/weave, as it were) was styled. I won’t remember how big your earrings were. I won’t remember any of those things unless they in some way seemed to prohibit your ability to sing well.

I won’t remember if there was a light show. I won’t remember if there was video displayed behind you. I won’t remember the set design of the stage. I won’t remember if you had dancers. I won’t remember if you danced unless you are the song-and-dance act à la Sammy Davis, Jr. I won’t remember what swung in the air or blew up during your show, unless you know… something really does blow up, or shots are fired in the venue because that is, unfortunately, the world we currently live in.

What I will remember is how well you sang. I will remember if you were in good voice. I will remember if you sounded comfortable; unhindered by wardrobe/accessories/staging from breathing well and singing well. I will remember if you sang a piece tonight as well, or better than, the last time I heard you sing live. I will remember how tight your band was. I will remember how well you and the band (or your accompanist) interacted or if you interacted at all. I will remember if the band/accompanist (also sound engineer) was supportive of, or in competition with, your vocal levels, colors and nuances. In short, I will remember the songs, and how well they were performed.