Aretha Franklin was not among my mother’s Sarah Vaughan albums, or my father’s Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington albums. Soul was something else, just then taking shape. “Think” and “Respect” were Sixties anthems of an edgy new blackness, and I remember one of my sisters playing “Baby Baby Baby” behind closed doors in tearful darkness after an argument with my mother about why she was not allowed to get an afro. In 1970, Aretha Franklin offered to pay Angela Davis’s bail, saying she understood how you have to disturb the peace when you can’t get any peace.
Gay liberation was new, too, and at my first gay party ever, in Bloomington, Indiana, a white kid with thick brown hair lip-synched in my direction the intro to one of the slower songs from Aretha Live at Filmore West: “If you came, and didn’t come with anybody, perhaps you might want to turn around and say to the next person, Hey!” We were making out and she was conceding, “If not now, later, some other time,” when the alarm spread that the cops were on the way. I lost the guy. A black woman and I held hands on the scattering street, as if we had not been in that packed house of girls wearing suspenders and boys in bell bottoms getting together thanks to the Queen of Soul.
The 1970s were going wild in New York City, those pre-AIDS years of strangers and cigarettes. All that time, Aretha Franklin was my late-night and sad-morning soundtrack, a music of desire, consolation, and repair. I’d lift the needle and put it back on the same spot, and then again. Maybe everyone who loves Aretha Franklin feels an intimate relationship with her voice; maybe everyone she moves has a particular period of her career to be passionate about. My Aretha zone goes from Spirit in the Dark, through Young, Gifted and Black, to Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), with its coded album illustrations, including a black guy dressed as a matador, a giant syringe sweeping by his cape. I wore out Let Me in Your Life. During a Christmas party in 1974, when our parents were away and we were screaming over bid whist, the last track of that album, “The Masquerade Is Over,” put a stop to the noise. The room folded hands, fell silent, and just listened.
I was into With Everything I Feel in Me. But my alone-with-her zone stops around the recording, You. There were the comeback hits of Love All the Hurt Away and Who’s Zoomin’ Who, then some of her duets with pop stars, and the last time I was ever in a gay disco, a quarter-century ago, in Boston, too old to be there, “A Deeper Love” was in the charts. However, the great voice had changed, and kept receding. She had her moments—the gray hat and the intensity at Obama’s first inauguration—but I resisted new recordings by Aretha Franklin, in the way some people find too painful late Billie Holiday or late Maria Callas.
The writer and critic Margo Jefferson said she’d expected to feel a certain historical sorrow at Aretha Franklin’s death, but she was surprised by how personally it has touched her. Maybe it’s also a generational thing. I never went to an Aretha Franklin concert, but her voice has gone with me everywhere. The 33⅓ vinyl records long ago turned into cassettes that were then replaced by CDs, which are packed away somewhere, now that everything is on YouTube or Spotify. I never knew much about her. Her vibe was unequivocal: I am not your business. She was our witness and maybe she didn’t need for us to be hers. She had earned her privacy more than we deserved to know her business. In interviews, she could display the malapropistic pretentiousness of someone who didn’t get far in school, but the act also held the interviewer at a distance. In that one episode of Murphy Brown, she does not buddy up. Maybe she could act: The Blues Brothers comes to mind. What she couldn’t be was Motown skinny, at least not for very long, it seemed.
Aretha Franklin had been at the piano, in church, on the road, all her life—gospel singer; club act; Muscle Shoals genius; last stop, legend. When a child star comes of age, beware. Maybe she had a somewhat perverse streak, an imperviousness to advice. She will wear a sleeveless gown at her age if she wants to; she won’t agree to the release of the film of her recording Amazing Grace. She shall not retire.
To sing was to have power, so why not continue to? In five decades, she released more than forty albums, and just as many compilations and greatest-hits collections, and I am forgetting how many live recordings. There may be more treasures in the vaults. She took some songs away from other artists just by redoing them her way. She left no ballad standing and wrestled even the tenderest lyrics to the floor. And when she was fast, I don’t know what to say about that, except that she stayed in control so that we could lose it.
Many are saying that Aretha Franklin paved the way for a whole generation of women singers, she who famously left the gospel circuit for a secular career. She had a profound influence on rhythm and blues as much as she did on gospel, the magic of her synthesis given enduring expression on Amazing Grace. Released in 1972, it was originally a two-disc recording of thirteen songs, taken from two nights in a Baptist church in Los Angeles with the Southern California Community Choir, under the direction of the Rev. James Cleveland, to hold her up in the call-and-response she could get going with her backup. She sang songs from the modern urban gospel tradition, represented by Thomas A. Dorsey, Clara Ward, and Inez Andrews; she sang Rodgers and Hammerstein, Carole King, and Marvin Gaye. The album opens with a deep voice, her father, saying simply, “Miss Aretha Franklin,” and the church is ready to run riot, and so is the band, the bass and the percussion providing the platform she could trust.
She had her own percussive style on piano and organ, but she had a voice like no other in gospel, RB, pop, soul, or funk. Her range was tremendous and her top notes reached toward the canopy of heaven. It was the sheer beauty of her voice, the tone and quality of it, the gift of it, that told us how acquainted with grief Aretha Franklin was.