The Queen Of Soul

I should have more to say about Aretha Franklin, who died yesterday at her home in Detroit, than it seems that I do.

It’s not that I don’t value or love her music. I have plenty of it – more than 130 tracks – on the digital shelves; I have several of her CDs; and a few LPs survived the Great Vinyl Sell-off the other year. And her music provided a lot of the soundtrack of my early teen years, years when I wasn’t listening to pop, rock and soul, but years when she was one of those artists – like the Beatles – whose music nevertheless seeped inside me without any effort on my part.

So why do I feel I have I so little to say?

Because Aretha Franklin as a subject for eulogy, memoir or memorial is too damned big. She towers over the music world in a way that few artists do. So I don’t know where to start or to end or even what to put in or leave out. And knowing that stuff is a huge part what I’m supposed to do as a writer, so that’s a little deflating.*

So what did Aretha mean to me? I was a little too young and a lot too white to grasp her impact when she came to Atlantic in 1966 and, well, I’m tempted to say she destroyed the existing order, but that’s a little too sweeping. Nevertheless, her 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You knocked a lot of listeners back in their chairs or wherever they were sitting. And Aretha continued to do that, single after single, album after album, year after year.

But y’all know that. Ain’t nothin’ new there.

So, my favorite Aretha? Well, I put “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” in the Ultimate Jukebox almost ten years ago, saying:

I don’t have much to say about Aretha Franklin and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” I mean, she’s Aretha, and the record was one of her forty-five Top 40 hits (covering a span of years from 1961 to 1998). Add that “Since You’ve Been Gone” went to No. 5 in the early spring of 1968 (and was No. 1 for three weeks on the R&B chart), and all you need to do after that is listen.

See, even back then, Aretha was too big for me. There are, however, other Aretha records I like more than “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” I love her take on “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby)” from 1972. And I love her sinuous cover of “Spanish Harlem” from 1971.

(So why, you might ask, did those two recordings not make it into the Ultimate Jukebox? Well, Lulu’s version of “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby)” showed up on my radio during my junior year of high school and attached itself forever to the memory of one whose attentions seemed unattainable, and I did not want two versions of the song in the project. And on the day I was choosing between Aretha’s version of “Spanish Harlem” and Ben E. King’s, I made the wrong choice.)

But that’s about me, and this is supposed to be about Aretha Franklin. So the least I can do is point you at the very good obituary and appreciation of her work written by Jon Bream that ran on the front page of this morning’s Minneapolis Star Tribune.

And maybe the best I can do this morning is to repeat what I posted at Facebook yesterday morning when I heard news of Aretha’s death:

There are plenty of reasons to grieve the loss of Aretha Franklin, but there are just as many reasons to celebrate our having had her here for so many years. So, by way of tribute, here’s her exultant “Freeway of Love” from 1985. (Saxophone courtesy of the Big Man, Clarence Clemons.)

R.I.P., Miss Franklin.

*As I think about that this morning, my mind looks to the future, and I know I’m going to feel the same way on the mornings after Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen leave this world. And that terrifies me and saddens me.

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