What we needed – Baby, She Had “It”
In April of 1967 I was finishing my high school sports career running sprints and hurdles for the Bay Shore track team. We had a teammate --- and I’m not sure I ever knew his actual name --- we called “Double-O” because he always carried an attaché case to practice (a la James Bond). In that case was a rather large, battery powered transistor radio (the 1967 version of a “boom box”) and the anthem for that track team quickly became Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Whenever it played on that scratchy radio (which was often!) the entire team, black kids, white kids, Latino kids, all started moving, all picked up a little more “strut” in their step, and all felt, somehow, energized after hearing Aretha belt out that “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Long before any of the single name stars of later years (Madonna, Cher, Beyonce, Adele) we had “Aretha” --- a touchstone for soul, rhythm & blues, and rock music all in one.
Otis Redding's “Dock of the Bay” was released (posthumously) in January of 1968 and it was only then that I discovered he had written “Respect.” I vaguely knew who “Goffin and King” were (they had written scores of hit tunes) but it was Aretha’s “Natural Woman” that became the defining rendition of Carol King’s song, long before the “Tapestry” album. While my musical interests and tastes were eclectic, to say the least, my love for the Flying Burrito Brothers tolerated their (sexually confusing) rendition of “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man,” knowing that only Aretha’s version was the legit one.
So, starting at age 18 (for me) Aretha was seared into my musical consciousness but, even more so, into my soul, white boy or not. Her output in 1967-68 alone was enough to sustain any other artist for an entire career. Consider this: aside from “Respect” in 1967 Aretha turned out “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” the aforementioned “Do Right Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby, I Love You,” and “Dr. Feelgood.” In 1968 she came out with “Think” (wonderfully revived in the 1980 Blues Brothers movie), “Ain’t No Way,” “People Get Ready” (the Curtis Mayfield classic!), “The House That Jack Built,” “(Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” From that point on Aretha was simply part of my life’s soundtrack. Her “Until You Come Back to Me” (1973), a song Stevie Wonder co-wrote and chose not to record, is Aretha’s from Note One.
Throughout her career, her covers of a wide variety (blues, rock, r & b) songs become uniquely and wonderfully her own. In 1969 she did a version of “The Weight” (by the Band) that rivals the exceptional rendition on Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” with the Staples Singers & The Band performing. Her “Bridge Over Troubled Water” vied for #1 on the charts with Simon and Garfunkel in 1971 and her “Spanish Harlem” is certainly as good as Ben E. King’s original. There are too many songs, really, to list them all but, again, part of my personal history includes 1970’s “Call Me,” “Spirit in the Dark,” and “The Dark End of the Street." While I was listening to a wide variety of music (thanks to being surrounded by great musicians in Morse College at Yale) Aretha was always right there! It was no surprise, then, in 1985, to hear her rocking out “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” for the Whoopi Goldberg movie. Her Eurhtymics duet on “Sisters are Doin’ For Themselves” (1984) and “I Know You Were Waiting (For Me)” with George Michael (1987) reminded all of us that Aretha was always a presence in the popular music of whatever era we were in.
So, the sadness we might feel today, as the first woman admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shuffles off this mortal coil, is balanced by knowing that her voice --- that incredible instrument that could soar and dive, growl and snarl, that could make you feel the music --- will always be there. As I write this my Amazon Alexa is cranking out “Aretha’s Greatest Hits” (which is a 30 song compilation, btw) and it’s hard not to move, even while sitting and typing (keyboarding?) this piece. And that was/is the magic of Aretha, a woman who could somehow turn a lyric like “Your Love is Like a Beach Ball” into a wonderful, soulful, exciting piece of art. Her mark on the last half-century of music is indelible and she was more than the “Queen of Soul.” She was the Queen of Popular Music, spanning genres and styles. Simply, the Best.