In the coming days, much will be written and said about the indomitable Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who departed this earthly realm on Thursday, August 16, 2018 at age 76. Though not unexpected in the end because she’d been sick for a while, her passing still leaves an enormous void. Aretha Franklin was truly an American treasure and a musical icon.
I’m no way near qualified to comment on the Queen’s prolific, six decades, genre-crossing musical career. I mean, the woman released her first album in 1956 and her last one in 2017, releasing music during every decade in between. She amassed 112 Billboard hit singles, including 20 #1s, making her the most charted female recording artist in history.
I’m not worthy enough to even comment on all that.
Really, no one is.
But “Rere” was raised in my hometown of Detroit from the time she was little. That makes her my home girl, so I can’t let this moment pass without offering my own small tribute to the Queen in my own way. That’s all this is.
Everyone has their favorite “Aretha” music. Some prefer the gospel music from which she got her start, and to which she returned many times throughout her career. Others prefer her more pop-styled music, including her duets with various pop artists and other hits from the 80s and 90s.
For me personally, I appreciate how her mid-60s, Atlantic Records music gave voice to the heartache, angst and passion of a woman in and out of love. During this era, Aretha Franklin sang about grown folk’s shit in a way that didn’t hide from the ugly parts. This is my favorite “Aretha” music.
Yes, her iconic “RESPECT” is one of those songs from that time. But I’m also talking about songs like “Dr. Feel Good”, “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”, “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”, “Natural Woman”, and “Ain’t No Way”.
Some of these songs were covers, but Aretha made them her own. I recently read a Tweet that said once Aretha Franklin covered your song, it was no longer your song. Truer words were never said. Just listen to her rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, in addition to “Respect” and “Natural Woman” for proof.
These songs reach deep down into your soul and pull out all of your feelings for you to experience over and over again. Each voice riff and octave change trembles with the emotion of every passionate love affair you’ve ever had, good or bad. Like the Blues greats who paved the way for her, Ms. Franklin’s raw delivery and candid expressions of love and hurt resonate in ways pop artists can never really replicate.
I’ll be honest. When I was a little girl growing up in Detroit in the 70s and 80s, I sang along to Aretha Franklin’s hits as they were released, quickly learning all the words like a pro. But I had absolutely no idea what I was singing. It’s like what elders say to young people when a jam comes on the radio “Y’all don’t know nothin’ ‘bout this”! I really didn’t “know nothin’”.
It wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s when I re-visited her early music as an adult that I truly appreciated Aretha’s more bluesy songs. I had to become a grown ass woman myself, with a few passionate love affairs and heartbreaks under my belt, before could I really get the Queen’s heartfelt lyrics.
Take 1967’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, for example. It opens with “You’re a no-good heartbreaker. You’re a liar. And you’re a cheat. And I don’t know why I let you do these things to me. My friends keep telling me that you ain’t no good. But, oh, they don’t know that I’d leave you if I could.”
Listen. If you’re a woman who’s made it to a certain age in life, you’ve probably said, or at least felt, some version of these words. You may not want to admit it, but we’ve all been there in some way, shape or form. And that’s what I came to love about the Aretha Franklin songs from that period, in particular. That raw truth, belted out in that distinctive Aretha Franklin voice, clearly expressed the things I was going through. Singing along with her, at the top of my off-key lungs, was a cathartic experience, releasing all my pain and heartache in a glorious two or three minutes of bluesy bliss.
It wasn’t all heartache and bad love, though. One of my other favorite Aretha Franklin songs from that era is “Dr. Feelgood” from the 1967 “I Never Loved a Man” album. In this song, with its bluesy pacing and double-entendre lyrics, Rere gets real about the good lovin’ she gets from her man. My favorite part of this song is where she sings “Don’t send me no doctor filling me up with all those pills. I got me a man named Dr. Feelgood and oh yeah, that man takes care of all my pains and my ills.” She later ends with “Good God Almighty, that man sure makes me feel real good!”
If you’re lucky, you’ve experienced your own Dr. Feelgood, and you can relate to this song. If you’re lucky, you know exactly what it means to be loved so good you don’t want anyone hanging around you and your man. If you’re lucky, this song resonates with you in ways that make you blush.
And that’s the power of Aretha Franklin’s music. It makes you feel.
I know that Aretha Franklin was so much more than the Detroit preacher’s daughter whose songs gave voice to my every emotion. She was also a valiant fighter for justice, once offering to pay for Angela Davis’ legal fees. She was a high school drop-out with two kids by the time she was 14 years old who went on to receive 10 honorary degrees. She was a recovering alcoholic and domestic violence survivor who went on to command the kind of respect others only dream about, demanding and receiving cash payments UP FRONT for her many performances and appearances. She was a Diva with a capital “D” who was also a doting grandmother who proudly attended her grandchildren’s school programs.
She was my home girl from Detroit. And she was so much more.
Aretha Franklin truly was the Queen of Soul, and she left an indelible mark on this world. I myself feel blessed to have been alive during her earthly reign.
Long live the Queen!