A Natural Woman
The first time I internalized Aretha Franklin – not “heard,” because as an American growing up post-1966, you never hear her for the first time – I was playing a video game against my oldest, not older, brother, back in the relatively nascent console days when video game producers didn’t know what to do other than to license actual music to fill in gaps in gameplay.
Specifically, the first time I internalized Aretha Franklin, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 76, was during one of the marathon sessions of NFL GameDay 2000 that yours truly used to play against his older, wiser sibling. To give you an idea of how the games themselves usually went, I relied on the fake punt-pass as my go-to fourth down play, and it never worked, and the most memorable game we ever played rests on that guy using that play, my play, to beat me in the final seconds of a game in which I was already ahead. He kept a running log of this particular series, but that is neither here nor there. It’s in Chicago, if I had to guess.
Anyway, one of the subtle, great aspects of that game was that it introduced me to a whole host of classic songs and artists, right at a time when I was trying to figure out if Roger Daltrey’s stutter was purposeful, or if Chris Cornell’s range was actually human.
You see, in order to re-create what most people playing the game would think was “an actual stadium experience,” whenever there was a change of possession in GameDay 2000, a song would come blaring from the proxy-stadium speakers. On some occasions, it would be “Eye in the Sky” by the Alan Parsons Project; if you were lucky, you got a snippet of Aretha’s version of “Respect.”
That snippet was, of course, of the seminal moment that most divides Aretha’s version from Otis Redding’s, the latter having written the song originally as a ballad before kicking the tempo up. As with all things Otis Redding, it is exceptional, a triumph in soul music and a masterful game of wordplay combed through by an incorrigible performance from the Stax backing band, primarily featuring members of Booker T. & the MGs.
But let’s not kid ourselves: as historian Curtis Harris noted, “if Aretha Franklin covered your song, it was no longer your song.” That notion became apparent in her versions of songs such as Wilson Pickett’s “I’m In Love,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and The Band’s “The Weight,” featuring Duane Allman in a session role playing, as he’d grown accustomed to, the perfect foil to Aretha’s powerful vocals.
With “Respect,” Aretha turned a man’s plea for attention into a woman’s fierce demand, knowing she could stand up to anyone who would dare cross the Queen of Soul’s path. When she implemented the elements that separated her version from Otis’ – the King Curtis sax solo over the bridge and, specifically, the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” refrain that embodied all the things people of color, and women, and women of color were facing at the time and continue to face – she made it definitive. As such, “Respect” became hers, and she earned it.
That song is what retrospectives will defer to as symbolic of her place as a cultural icon, and as a black woman in the late 1960s, she certainly earned that, too. But what sustains her place in the cultural canon is multi-faceted and so much more nuanced, far much more so than is within the experience of a white man with a suburban upbringing in his background is able to grasp. But then, we all had our moments with Aretha Franklin.
Is it obvious to point out that the first thing you notice about Aretha is her voice? So unique and so vast, she had such a command over it, over the course of so many years, that she seemed capable of hitting any note, at any time, so long as it was of her own volition. I didn’t know her personally, but she strikes me as the kind of person that, when she broke out into song, it was because she decided to, and not at the behest of anybody in particular. Not that you ever minded. She made it look – made it feel – so easy, even when she was the only one in the world who could do what she did.
Aretha was also a nimble, skilled piano player, as showcased on her 1972 live album Amazing Grace, which may very well be the greatest Gospel album ever recorded. She takes several traditional spirituals to task, with calls to the Father interspersed in between the music. The man delivering those calls, naturally, is none other than her own, human father, the Baptist minister C.L. Franklin., a Detroit staple from Aretha’s infancy.
You can listen to Amazing Grace in all its stunning, parochial power and never stop to consider that the same woman turned out “Rock Steady,” one of the rawest grooves to emerge from the Soul Train era. Aretha was sensual, full of vivacious energy; she commanded every space she inhabited, up to and including that shared with the (former) President of the United States, discarding a fur coat during a performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015 that left that song’s writer and an honoree that night, Carole King, in delighted shambles.
She made music that shocked the conscience and challenged the listener. Upon performing an updated version of her hit “Think” in the 1980 SNL-spinoff classic The Blues Brothers, she seized control, a mighty task for a bit, albeit cameo, player. At the White House in 2014, she may as well have declared herself President during a spine-tingling rendition of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” which: a) she was in her early seventies and essentially eyeing Barack Obama as a coy bit of stage play in front of Michelle, who loved it, and b) yeah, absolutely, she should have gone ahead and declared herself President. We’d all be better off for it.
To consider how much music wouldn’t exist in the absence of Aretha Franklin is to take on a fool’s errand. I’m not of the mind that soul music wouldn’t exist without her; after all, it already existed. But it would almost certainly be such a drag had she not acted as a bridge between so many different pools of influence, from spirituals to Gospel, from Gospel to the blues, from jazz to rock and from this side to whatever lays ahead of us all.
Stumbling into an understanding of who Aretha Franklin was via an NFL video game seems so glib, especially in 2018, as to be almost flippant, but it was a door to something so much more expansive than I ever could’ve comprehended that if I’d have just sat down and listened to, for instance, Lady Soul at the same age, I probably never would’ve pursued music as a hobby afterward, being convinced that I’d found the peak and that the only way left was down.
While there are other peaks, and other valleys, and Aretha certainly knew a few of the latter herself, it is her catalog of the former, the vast majority of her living output, which we use to celebrate today. It is as easy to champion her many virtues as it is to mourn her, but as much as anybody, Aretha Franklin contained multitudes. Where we lucked out is in how many of those she was willing to share with us.
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This is definitely more of an appendix than a footnote, so it belongs here. From a 2016 New Yorker story by David Remnick and courtesy of Billy Preston, this is arguably the definitive quote on Aretha Franklin:
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 I’m going Aretha henceforth; do you know another Aretha that deserves to go by just her first name? Right.
 She often played piano as accompaniment on her own recordings, including on “Respect.”