Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Her Majesty: The Soul of Aretha

“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll – the way the hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty. American history wells up when Aretha sings. Because she captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and also the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation and transcendence.” – Barack Obama, Kennedy Center, 2015

Somehow, in a way that might forever remain inexplicable, Aretha Franklin managed to alter the landscape of soul music by transforming herself into both a rock icon and a pop goddess. For me, there were three key hinges to her remarkable swinging stylistic door. The first was synthesis: she was the perfect corporate merger between sacred gospel music and secular blues music. Next was reconciliation: she was the ideal reconciliation between and rhythm and blues music and rock and roll music. And finally, transcendence: she was the unexpected redemption of spiritual soul music by perfectly pure pop music.

The great pop singer-songwriter Carole King was sitting next to a president almost convulsed in tears and a first lady enraptured by an African-American soul-goddess performing a signature song by King, who was being honored at the Kennedy Center in 2015. “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” was a song King had written especially for Aretha (who had herself been honored as a national treasure way back in 1994) and its composer was almost leaping off the balcony in her own emotive adoration for a legendary artist supposedly saluting her – partly for the way in which Aretha still owned this career-bending song from 1967, and partly for the vibrant way the Queen was robustly playing the piano in self-accompaniment, and like everyone else around her in the theater, that year’s honoree was humbled and stunned by the sheer radiant intensity of Franklin’s delivery of a fellow artist’s tribute to her. Carole King was being serenaded by the Queen, and that part of this historic event just didn’t seem to compute. “Written especially for” is putting it mildly, and the back-story is one of the key ingredients to this book on Franklin and her music: the fact that though she started out as a gospel singer of great finesse, and obviously emerged as a soul singer of phenomenal power, my contention is that she eventually, rather rapidly, in fact, transcended all such genres and publicly triumphed largely as a rock and pop star.

Pop is what happens to someone who is so profoundly gifted that she attracts to herself not just one audience or demographic, but multiple listening camps in just as many age and taste groups. My calling her a pop star in no way diminishes her status as a soul singer of grand proportions, in fact, it only serves to amplify her unique ability to touch a diverse range of music lovers where they live. Hence my primary area of focus: the soul of Aretha. The origins and delivery of one of her signature songs is a perfect example of her pop majesty at its finest. King wrote it in partnership with Gerry Goffin, inspired by Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer and co-owner of Aretha’s longtime label, Atlantic Records, who is also given co-writing credit. As Wexler chronicled in his autobiography, he had long been a student of African-American culture and was mulling over the concept of the “natural man” while driving through the streets of New York and he passed by King on the corner. He literally shouted out, while at a stoplight, that he wanted a “natural woman” song for Aretha Franklin’s next album. She delivered, big time.

Aretha in her prime – one of several primes, that is. (Getty Images)

That King song is an example of Franklin’s multi-faceted talents at their finest, since it is clearly an ideal pop song more than a soul or funk song, and one composed by practically perfect exponent of the classic pop song vibe from her days writing girl-group ballads at the Brill Building, a creative factory for hits. King herself wouldn’t approach her own song for another four years, on her brilliant pop masterpiece Tapestry, in 1971. But by then, Aretha has already teased out its hidden soul vibe and turned it upside down to suit her own unearthly abilities.

The same irony is true of another of her signature tunes, “Respect,” written and recorded by Otis Redding in 1965 but bestowed on Aretha as a gift in that same magical year of her popular ascent, 1967. During the Monterey Pop Festival that year, Redding was heard mugging on stage about the recent release of Aretha’s volcanic cover version, with its speeded-up tempo and feminized lyric, a version that owed more to her rock n' roll pop DNA than either her soul or funk sensibilities: “That girl took it away from me, a friend of mine, that girl just took this song away.” He said it with a smile, of course. Even a soul master like Redding easily recognized that Franklin had elevated the coal of his previously somewhat macho song into a rock and pop diamond that became an aural icon not only of the growing feminist movement but also a kind of anthem for the evolving civil rights movement. To my ears, the newly devised and repeated chorus, “Sock it to me,” is one of things that makes this song a pop-rock gem.

Readers of anything I’ve written recently, whether it was my long twisted history of Fleetwood Mac, or on Winehouse’s haunted brilliance, or on the late Sharon Jones’s funky spirit, will know that I take pop very seriously, since I consider it a social and cultural mirror that often captures the essence of a given time and place. So here’s a third example of what made Ree-Ree (as her friends and family called her), for me, a consummate pop queen quite independent of her hard-won and well-deserved soul status. Luciano Pavarotti was slated to perform at the Grammy Awards in 1998, but, ever the diva, he complained of a mysterious illness only one hour before he was scheduled to go on. Panic ensued, and the producers of the show approached Franklin with an impossible request: could she step in to deliver the aria “Nessun Dorma” in his place? Though she was obviously not adept at his particular vocal craft, and had never entertained such a bizarre fantasy, there was a pause for a heartbeat, then Franklin asked them to play a recorded tape of that day’s rehearsals with a gigantic and decidedly non-soul-oriented orchestra. And then she quipped, “Sure, I can do that.” And did it she did, in fact she did it to death, bringing the house down with her impossible-to-classify-or-quantify skill as a vessel of pure song, regardless of the style or format.

Aretha at the Kennedy Center in 2015. (Photo: Getty)
Only a consummate and almost spookily talented pop superstar could have pulled this off. For me, even though it was an Italian aria, it proved that Aretha was a pop maven par excellence, since it demonstrated an innate skill at touching anyone’s heart anywhere singing anything. When I saw her do this magical turn (through tears) it was obvious to me that even though she was obviously a soul goddess, she was also in the ranks of near perfect lyrical communicators such as Barbra Streisand or Diana Ross, though clearly neither of them would have commanded the voice (or the sheer gravitas) to even attempt the challenge of filling in for an ailing Luciano. How on earth did she achieve these astonishing feats? The answers await us all in our collective archaeology of all things Aretha. The fact that she was able to transform a soul song like “Respect” into a pop rock song, and also to transform a solid pop tune like “You Make Me Feel” into a blistering soul ballad, and also to assume the staggering responsibility of delivering a classical aria to a worldwide Grammy audience with about fifty minutes of preparation, well, that tends to establish my assessment of her otherworldly skills right up front. (Somehow I also suspect that secretly she was an opera star as well, not in the conventional sense of the word, of course, but in terms of the central place of blues/soul/rock/pop in the American vernacular and culture: soul, pop and rock are the inherently native classical musics that black Americans gifted to the rest of their country and to the world. And soul music is essentially our American opera.)

We witness the unfolding of her personal story as it ambles towards 18 Grammy Awards, 75 million records sold and over 100 top-ten-charting hit songs, her being the first woman to be inducted (in 1987) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and yes, she lived large. Ironically, her whole life already was an opera in itself, including all the sensation, drama, pain, heartbreak and triumph that an opera requires. Teaching herself to play the piano at five years of age, and giving birth to her first of four sons at the age of thirteen were only the beginning of her incredible narrative. Calling her a prodigy doesn’t even begin to approach the stellar soul status she brought along with her to our planet during her stunning visit of seventy-six years among us. Her story involves the struggling and juggling of competing internal conflicts, from the pavement to the pulpit, from the church pew and altar to the nightclub and bedroom, and back again. Every great soul singer tended to exemplify the battle with their gospel roots in their own musical artistry. Great gospel music artists such as Clara Ward (Aretha’s own mentor when she was a girl) or Mahalia Jackson tended to stay on the left side of the sacred road, while great soul and funk artists such as James Brown or Sharon Jones tended to dash across to the right, to the secular and profane side, but they still kept a close eye on the church in their background. So did Ray Charles and Tina Turner.

But very few of the great ones managed to have the best of both folkway worlds in their personal and professional lives. Al Green often tried to straddle both, as per his mixture of sultry soul tunes, while still trying to perform as a pastor, but he had other challenges that limited his success at both. Which is why, after scaling the heights of popular soul music very early on in her career, and while at the very pinnacle of commercial success, Aretha defiantly released a double live album of all gospel tunes called Amazing Grace in 1972 at the peak of her pop fame, an audacious record which went on to become perhaps the best-selling gospel record in history. Ree-Ree always did have multiple versions of herself tucked away inside, and as often as she could, she like to let several of them come out to play at the same time. There are basically four pillars holding up the stylistic building she lived in: sin and redemption, heartbreak and hope. And there are basically two counter-tops to lean on in examining her cultural contribution: the altar railing and the bar rail, both of which are equally represented throughout her many magnificent works.

The ample evidence for my contention that she was so much more than only a soul superstar is the sheer diversity, versatility and eclecticism in her career arc. My belief that she eventually, and rather quickly, established herself as the quintessential pop star is also evident in the range of her choices: she did an album with jazz giant Ray Bryant and his trio, an album in tribute to the jazz-blues queen (and another early influence) Dinah Washington, as well as a string of remarkable collections of bright and shiny pop songs of the brilliant sort penned by Hal David and Burt Bacharach. Two central insights by friends and listeners who knew both sides of her well will be explored carefully in these pages, one perfectly evoking The Glorious Church of Aretha Franklin, by Michael Eric Dyson, and the other evoking Aretha’s Imperial Magic by Yonette Joseph. Both contrasting insights were shared in the pages of The New York Times subsequent to her demise. The first shows us how the Queen of Soul preached to us all, while the second shares yowls that every woman could decode: those of rage, joy or exultation.

Andy Warhol's tribute to the Queen, ca. 1983. (Photo: Getty)

Dyson has reported with his usual eloquence on Franklin’s profound synthesis of usually opposed polarities. He was among the small group of friends and family invited to watch her sing in 2015 for Pope Francis. “Even at 73, Ms. Franklin could trap lightning in her mouth at a moment’s notice and shout fire down to earth. She conjured transcendent sonic fury. The young Aretha had learned from her father, CL Franklin, one of the most storied preachers of his day, and she then turned into a gospel wunderkind.” As with most of the formerly solely sacred singers who switched to secular music, she confronted brutal blowback from some black believers: they thought she had betrayed her true calling. But, and as Dyson pointed out in his tribute to her, they were wrong. After experimenting with numerous genres, “Aretha Franklin found a bigger canvas on which to sketch her artistic vision, which drew from both soul passions and progressive possibilities.” That indeed is exactly how and why she managed to transcend Redding’s macho “Respect” into “an anthem for racial pride and a cry for feminist recognition. Her church got larger, her congregation composed of millions of people in search of spiritual direction beyond the sanctuary doors.”

Dyson, himself also a preacher, believed that Aretha’s “church” became the whole planet, and her congregation was anyone with ears to hear. Like many others, he believed that hers was the best way to tell their story to people who might never enter a church but who were sorely in need of “a dose of the Spirit.” Yet her particular brand of that dose also seemed to readily include its apparent opposite: the temple of flesh. That is precisely why the best song to identify with her, above and beyond all her obvious signature tunes, was a little lesser- known item called “Rock Steady”, from 1972. This humble but hot tune also conveys a great deal of what I came to recognize as her uniquely blended brand of pure pop and hard rock stirred together into a sizzling dream stew of spicy sensuality. For Yonette Joseph, it was the pivotal song that connected most powerfully with her own young feminist experiences and social perspectives at the time. Joseph observed that the “Rock Steady” moaning refrain was one that that many black women knew only too well: “a fire in the belly, a well of pain, a personal altar for communing with a higher power. Aretha Franklin was a symbol of black-woman magic. Scholars and music critics rightfully praise her voice, her civil rights activism, her place in the pantheon of music, a songwriter whose songs became an anthem for people’s struggle. But for many women, the pride came in knowing that she looked like our aunts, mothers, sisters and girlfriends. Everyone had an Aretha in the family, right? Not really.”

When Joseph was growing up in the 70’s and listening to her grandmother’s collection of records, one tune in particular jumped out at her and made her play it again and again. No, it wasn’t “Respect” or “Think”; it was “Rock Steady,” which stopped her in her tracks with its open sensuality and hugely female message: “You’re a no-good heartbreaker, / You’re a liar, a cheat!” Joseph clarified its appeal as follows: “Echoing the name of the slow-dance music that originated in Jamaica, it reads like a sly sexual tutorial from a woman who knows what she wants. Setting the pace for this funky dance all night: 'Rock steady baby, that’s how I feel now. Let’s call this song exactly what it is, step and move your hips with a feelin’ from side to side, sit yourself down and take a ride, rock steady baby, rock steady, let’s call this song exactly what it is.'” For Joseph, and so many others of both genders and whatever colour, songs have come and gone, but Aretha remains: “Tunes to beat back rainy days, songs to clean the house by, songs for a Sunday kind of love, but I couldn’t seem to lose Aretha. Timeless.” 

Hear, hear. Let’s explore the multiple edges of her complex character, personality and persona: this lady for both a Saturday night and a Sunday morning kind of love. Joseph nailed it perfectly: “At times she looked ordinary, and so was legion. Then she looked regal, worthy of a pedestal. She had a body that spread out naturally over the years, and many could relate. Shrouded in fur coats and d├ęcolletage-bearing gowns that dared you to have a problem with the flesh that housed her soul. She took up space – regally, unapologetically – and she presented all the seasons of her physical self with an imperial gaze.” So, let’s travel through all the seasons of Aretha’s soul. Let’s call this lady exactly what she was: Her Majesty.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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