Some friends and I had gathered at Josie’s for breakfast Thursday morning. We discussed bad movies, politics and getting old — the usual rubbish. Then the five or six televisions in the eatery, tuned to almost as many different news stations, all switched to a breaking story.
We knew the passing of Aretha Franklin was imminent, given reports of her failing health and subsequent hospice care. But that didn’t lessen the blow. If you saw a train coming at you, even in slow motion, would that lighten the fury and devastation of its ultimate impact?
Bearing the rightly-earned title of Queen of Soul, Franklin was the kind of artist whose influence upon modern music simply cannot be overstated.
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As a vocalist and soul music stylist, she was unparalleled. She could take a gospel staple like “Amazing Grace,” a watershed Carole King tune like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” or a classic work by one of her contemporaries, like Otis Redding’s “Respect,” and make them sound remarkably like-minded. The blend of stamina, soul, grace, joy and intensity within her vocals was so assuredly balanced that Franklin made any song she sang her own. But there was always emotive variety. Her performances could be as soothing as a whisper, as persuasive as a preacher or as unrelentingly forceful as a battering ram.
As a woman who came to prominence during the 1960s, she was also a towering voice of independence. There were others, of course, who strayed from roads to stardom created solely on image. But Franklin was as strong as oak when it came to standing up for herself, her music and her career. “Respect” wasn’t just a song for her. It was a mantra forever ingrained into her entire artistic being. No wonder so many women continue to champion the song 50 years after it became a hit.
There was humor, too. It’s tough to forget her single, show-stealing scene in John Landis’ 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.” That’s where Franklin played the owner of a soul food restaurant that led a diner dance hall routine centered around “Think” as a defiant ultimatum to her husband (played by Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who died in June). Of course, that followed her matter-of-factly pegging the film’s lead characters, Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) as “two honkies dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants.”
But Franklin’s departure runs deeper than that. She was one of the last connections this generation had to the vanguard soul music fashioned by Atlantic Records and its subsidiary labels during the late 1960s — a stable of artists that included Redding, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and many others. Their music, of course, has been thankfully immortalized on recordings. But there will simply never be another sound to equal that Atlantic era’s sense of natural, impassioned R&B.
My favorite Franklin song? That’s easy. It was the title tune to the first Aretha album I ever bought: “Spirit in the Dark.” Released in the fall of 1970, its sound was slightly looser and less produced, but was in no way less fervent. Composed by Franklin, the song is essentially a gospel work fashioned during a time when the youthful idealism of the late ‘60s had vanished, leaving a social fabric weather-beaten by Vietnam and racial strife. But like many great gospel works, it opens with a quiet glimmer of hope before eventually boiling over with tent-revival style jubilation.
“Tell me, my brother, brother, brother, how do you feel?” Franklin sings as the song gathers steam. “Do you feel like dancing? Then get up and let’s start dancing.”
That might seem less empowering than the chorus of “Respect.” But for today, the day the Queen has left us, it is comforting advice. After all, when the spirit in the dark comes out into the light and invites you to dance, don’t ask. Just start moving — “Move with the spirit.”