Last week I was sitting on my porch at 1pm on a Thursday eating an ice cream sandwich, all of which are rare. A car rolled by with the windows down, playing I Say a Little Prayer by Aretha Franklin, one of my favorites. It was still playing in my mind when I went inside to my computer. As soon as I sat down, a chat screen popped up and Jonny told me Aretha had died — he knows I am a fan. So I will probably always remember the day Aretha Franklin died because of that serendipity. And because she has been a companion along my way since I was fourteen. I suspect I have played her album of Atlantic hits 500 times and said a little prayer with her a few times, too.
I was fourteen in 1968 when Respect won two Grammys and Aretha Franklin became a feature on the Hi-Fi stationed in my family’s living room. There were no personal music players or earphones back then so music was a communal experience. My parents did not like Aretha in their communal experience (just like they hadn’t liked one of her mentors, Mahalia Jackson). For one thing, she was black and they were vocal racists, especially my father, who had competed for sharecropping jobs with black men and jealously guarded whatever shred of white privilege he could muster. What’s more, she sounded aggressive and loud. Even if they didn’t listen to the words and didn’t get it when she spelled it out: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, they could feel her demand when she sang. She threatened the living room. Her blackness invaded my parents’ sanctuary.
I did not get all this completely when I was fourteen. I’m a product of racism just like we all are. So it merely felt like a like a guilty pleasure to rebelliously listen to Aretha, and to allow someone but Perry Como to define music for me. Aretha liked Perry Como, too (I read the interview), just like she enjoyed all kinds of good music. But my parents did not know that, mostly because she was black and it betrayed their worldview to listen to her. Nevertheless, my relationship with the Queen of Soul grew and my appreciation of her talent and passion deepened.
As it turns out, the famously private Aretha Franklin was hiding all the trauma that would have appalled my parents and supercharged the disrespect they were eager to pour on her. Her parents were separated. She was a teen mother at 12 and 14. Her first husband purportedly abused her. She had two divorces. She was often overweight. She was known for idealizing her life, not even publicly admitting to the pancreatic cancer that eventually killed her as late as last year.
At the same time she was using the gift God gave her to make a huge difference. Had she just given us the pleasure of listening to her great musical talent, however she used it, that would have been enough. But her music became the soundtrack of the civil rights movement for African Americans and women both. And her insistence on doing things that were beyond the labels under which she labored and the track on which her previous success directed her is an example for all of us who feel underestimated or pigeonholed.
Her soulful talent helped me move out of my racist bubble. Thank God. I remember another moment of transition related to the song that came to me through the car window on her death day. I got started with I Say a Little Prayer with Dionne Warwick in 1967 before Aretha recorded it in 1968.
I loved Dionne Warwick’s version. But when I heard Aretha’s, I realized that Warwick’s was something of a sanitized version which was more about the cool, cerebral music of Burt Bacharach than about Dionne Warwick. She was just a vehicle for the notes. When Aretha got a hold of it, it was full of passion that transcended the notes and most of the words. At the end of the song, she turns it into an actual prayer and we are all invited into a place that is a lot bigger than pop. So-called white people used so-called black people to carry their assignments long before I learned as a child to think of that as normal. Aretha broke me out of that normality when she led me someplace bigger. She was a leader. And even wounded, she was just bigger than most of us.
I suppose that is why I was particularly moved when she died. Like many other people I eventually tuned into the news channels to see what people were saying about her and to invite her into my living room again, this time to celebrate her with freedom. I found myself shedding a tear with President Obama as her Kennedy Center Performance was repeatedly replayed.
As I listened, I had another revelation that led to this blog post. I loved A Natural Woman when I heard it on Carol King’s Tapestry (which I had on vinyl and basically wore out with many plays). But when Aretha got a hold of it, she added a spiritual dimension that took it beyond the great feeling of a man seeing his partner as the woman she is and calling out the best in her (which I hope we all get to experience many, many times). I honestly think she took the song where we can all sing it to God.
Maybe this seems strange, but when I sing “You make me feel like a natural woman” along with Aretha, I feel God making me feel like my true self, even when I sing “natural woman!” Again, she brought someone larger to the music. It seems like Aretha did not have too many people in her life to make her feel as safe and real as the song sings it. So I think she must have gotten her power in the secret place she kept beyond fame, pain, addiction and racism where Jesus reminded her she was his beloved. May she rest in God’s arms.