For Aretha Franklin, Our Lady of Still Waters, Our Queen of Soul
On, August 31, 2018, we laid to rest a Queen. She was, perhaps, the greatest singer of the 20th Century; every other great vocalist cites her as the golden standard. Her voice moved us like a sonic embodiment of emotion, and through her peerless gift, she expressed America’s heart, soul, and the deepest recesses of its collective psyche for more than a half-century. The Civil Rights Movement found its soundtrack in her; if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were the mother and father of the movement, then she was its soul sister, marching alongside the freedom fighters and rousing the tide of change through song. Hers was the voice of the Feminist movement as well, and never before had a woman so fearlessly wailed lyrics that challenged the patriarchal status quo. She was Lady Soul, and through her demands for respect, love, reciprocity, and the natural rights all human beings deserve, she became the voice of the disenfranchised even as she entertained all levels of society. The love for her transcended economic class and race, and she was the first Black woman to receive many of the honors she held, toppling barriers and opening doors. In her lifetime, she received 21 Grammys in total: eighteen competitive awards and three honorific Grammys including the coveted Legend and Lifetime Achievement Awards. She was the first woman ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone Magazine placed her number one on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. She was the recipient of the iconic Kennedy Center Honor in 1994; at the time, she was the youngest honoree in the award’s history. At special request, she lent her voice to the Inauguration Celebrations for President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton. She received the National Arts Medal from President Clinton and was bestowed our nation’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2005 by President George W. Bush. She was selected as the featured performer for the historic Inaugural Ceremony of President Barack Obama, the first Black man to hold the nation’s highest office. No doubt, he chose her because he knew that hers was the voice that sustained our elders as they fought the chains of oppression and made his accomplishment possible. Mr. Obama said she “helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade — our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect”. Even her contemporaries held her in high esteem. Barbra Streisand, perhaps the only other singer who reached equal heights, said, “It’s difficult to conceive a world without her. Not only was she a uniquely brilliant singer, but her commitment to civil rights made an indelible impact on the world”. Another of her peers in genius, Stevie Wonder, said, “Every singer was influenced in some way by the way she sang, and they will forever be influenced by her because of her voice, her emotion; her sincerity is unforgettable.” Perhaps Paul McCartney of the Beatles said it most succinctly: she was “the Queen of our souls”.
She was Aretha Louise Franklin. And, to echo Jack Lemmon’s famous words about Sir Laurence Olivier, if it seems like I’ve made Aretha into a figure straight off Mount Olympus, then I apologize…for the understatement. Indeed, the complexity of what she meant to the fabric of American society within the latter half of the 20th Century is impossible to overstate.
It’s also impossible to begin to describe her without acknowledging her greatest gift, which she used to its highest potential: her voice. Patti LaBelle called her “the greatest singer of all time”. She was a virtuoso vocalist, with a seemingly inhuman technique and a natural musical gift. Aretha was the perfect sum of the vocal greats who came before her: she blended the clarity and musicality of Ella Fitzgerald, the emotive and haunting tonal quality of Billie Holiday, the profundity and religious power of Mahalia Jackson, the full chest-voice belting of Judy Garland, and the phrasing and range of Sarah Vaughan. She had Gospel’s electricity, Soul’s passion, Jazz’s mathematics, and tones from the Blues; an elastic, tidal wave of a voice that stood singularly triumphant in the landscape of modern vocals. She was the singer’s singer, soaring higher, stretching further, and reaching deeper than anyone else. Gladys Knight said, “Aretha’s music set a standard for every single lady in this industry to rise to”. It’s true. Every great singer who came after her, male or female, patterned their vocal styles around hers.
For instance, Aretha was Whitney Houston’s hero. Houston ran of photo of Ms. Franklin in the middle of her own iconic 1985 “How Will I Know” video and, during an interview, said “I looked up to her…to me she was the ultimate.” Mariah Carey called her “the greatest singer and musician of my lifetime”. Carey calls to our attention another important highlight: Aretha was an equally gifted musician.
She was an accomplished pianist who could learn entire songs by ear, no matter the complexity. She often accompanied herself on most of her biggest hits, her playing in natural synergy with her voice.
An artistic prodigy and genius, she possessed a deeply musical mind with a complete understanding of the intimacies of her craft, even writing some of her biggest career hits, such as “Think” and “Call Me”.
Aretha always knew that her talent had the power to enormously impact people on a spiritual and cathartic level. Her long-time bassist Chuck Rainey described how she’d instruct her band members to focus strictly on the music and not her singing, lest they be entranced by her voice and miss the rhythm or play wrong notes. She told him one day “Chuck be careful. I don’t want you to listen too close. Because I know what I do to people.” Yes, she knew. She knew that her gift affected listeners, beyond mere entertainment. Consider her 1967 hit “Respect”. It’s not a stretch to see how Dr. King, Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and the millions of Black and brown people marching with them saw their struggle reflected in “Respect”. The song’s chorus, “All I’m asking…is for a little respect”, was a sentiment that every Black person in the country could feel while living under the oppressive thumb of racism and white supremacy. Even the repeated lines “Just a little bit!” after each chorus ring true: we weren’t asking for the world but were merely requesting the basic respect of natural human rights. The closing lines “I get tired, but I keep on trying. You’re running out of fools and I ain’t lying” easily captured the feeling of revolution and uprising that was simmering in the disenfranchised.
Aretha wasn’t just an innocent bystander of the power of her voice; she was an active player in the struggle for Civil Rights. She marched alongside Dr. King and worked closely with him, lending her talents and her charity. Jesse Jackson says she helped him make payroll several times in his organizations and toured around the country for free with Dr. King and Harry Belafonte. Further, with the heart of a lion, she courageously took on causes that could potentially have threatened her status and made her unpopular. In 1970, she told Jet Magazine that she was willing to pay the bail for jailed civil rights leader and activist Angela Davis, who had been arrested for the 1970 armed-takeover of a Marin County courtroom. (Ms. Davis was later acquitted and continued her activism, ultimately becoming a noted professor). Ms. Franklin said of her, “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people ― they’ve made me financially able to have it ― and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.” Ms. Franklin was always on the front lines for liberation.
Aretha, too, became a voice of feminism and women’s rights. “Respect”, in addition to being an anthem for civil rights, also doubled as a feminist mantra. In the song, a woman is the breadwinner of the house and is demanding respect from her man, concepts long stigmatized by patriarchy. She shone light on the realities of gender equality, the gender gap, parity, and women as independent forces. Her womanist stance was reflected in other music too. In “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, Aretha stood flatfooted and declared “they say that it’s a man’s world…but you can’t prove that by me!” In “I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You”, Aretha looked her man right in the eyes, and told him “you’re a no-good heartbreaker! You’re a liar and you’re a cheat!” She did away with the concept of women being submissive, wispy creatures who had to take the abuse of their men. This was not a woman who would be held down, reduced, diminished, or broken.
She also directly empowered Black women to embrace their own beauty. Aretha not only sang about being a “Natural Woman”, she became one. In an era when famous Black women were required to wear thick makeup and straight bouffant wigs to make themselves look like their white counterparts, Aretha was one of the first to strip herself of that image and stand proudly with a soul Afro and bare face in the early 70’s.
She challenged the Euro-centric standard of beauty and introduced Black women and Black beauty as worthy. Decades before seminal empowering albums like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Beyonce’s Lemonade, there was Aretha Franklin giving all women the right to be powerful and specifically giving Black women permission to exist in their own beauty and self.
Above all, Aretha was a survivor. Musical superstar Adele expressed “I can’t remember a day of my life without her voice and music filling my heart with so much joy and sadness”. Adele’s highlight is important: Aretha’s art impacted us on such a human level because her voice and art was a curious mixture of jubilation and suffering. Her joys were as deep as her pain. Jerry Wexler, the producer who helped her create her iconic string of hits at Atlantic Records, wrote this of her in his autobiography:
“I think of Aretha as ‘Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows,’. Her eyes are incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain. Her depressions could be as deep as the dark sea. I don’t pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.”
‘Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows’. It’s a play on the Catholic titles for the Virgin Mary which use noble attributes: Our Lady of Peace, Our Lady of Mercy, or Our Lady of Perpetual Help. That he would chose a play on the titles of the Virgin Mary shows the esteem with which he, and we, held Ms. Franklin’s talent: Aretha received practical sainthood in the music world. It also demonstrates the depth of her humanity. Indeed, many sorrows surrounded our blessed Aretha. A quick Google search or biography read will reveal that misfortune, trauma, abuse, loss, mental illness, pain, and suffering marked her life as profoundly as her historic accomplishments. I won’t go into them, because Ms. Franklin was notoriously private, and I will honor that. Let her words from the 1968 Time Magazine cover story suffice: “I’ve been hurt — hurt bad”.
Yet, her sorrows are what made her so beautifully human. She couldn’t possibly understand or begin to express the fullness of the human experience, if she’d lived an easy, unaffected life. This world is a balance of light and dark, joy and pain, passion and suffering, mountains and valleys, gardens and deserts, laughter and tears, day and night. That she experienced the fullness of life, and survived it, gave her the experiential wisdom that resided in the way she phrased her lyrics, the songs she chose, and even the sound of her voice. She provided catharsis and breakthrough for millions. Aretha turned any song, no matter the content, into an expression of human survival, with the power of a Baptist tent revival. A song about relationships like “Ain’t No Way”, with its lyric “it just ain’t no way for me to love you if you won’t let me” can easily also serve as a statement about toxic family members and friendships. I would play her classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to help myself as I struggled with clinical Depression and debilitating Anxiety Disorder, and when she said, “sail on by, your time has come to shine, all of your dreams are on their way…just like a bridge over troubled water, I’ll be there to lay me down”, it felt like she was channeling the voice of the divine. It became an expression of hope for me. There were days when I didn’t know if I could go on, but Aretha would remind me that there was something greater than us all, and like a bridge over troubled waters, it would be there for me. She saved my life and the lives of so many others by being the sonic avatar through which we expressed our tribulations and our triumphs. Her music was our therapy and our salvation.
Now, Aretha has left us, ascending to the next world, the next phase of existence; the next dream. If I may, I’d like to update the title Mr. Wexler gave her, for although she bore many mysterious sorrows, she was never a slave to them, and in surviving her mysterious sorrows, she helped us all survive our own. Her silent, reserved strength and her profound gift remind me of a line from that song I mentioned earlier, “Bridge over Troubled Water”. The line is: “still waters run deep.” Aretha Franklin, with her shy and demure personality, moved through the world like still waters, but those waters ran deep, and when she finally unleashed them over us all in song, she cleansed us like a baptism and made us feel reborn into the possible. She was the still waters that run so deeply. Let that, now, be her title.
Rest in unspeakable joy and peace, Aretha, Our Lady Of Still Waters!
Our Forever Queen of Soul.
And let the church say, Amen.