August 31, 2018
I spent some time this morning, flipping channels between Aretha Franklin’s funeral and the placement of John McCain’s casket in the Capitol Rotunda. The quiet solemnity of the McCain tribute was a sharp contrast to the open casket, the laughter, and the overt hugging and kissing that was taking place in Detroit.
Both Aretha and McCain came from families where there was a tradition of service and an expectation that if you came from that family, you would, in some way, serve. McCain was the son and grandson of Navy Admirals, and Aretha was the daughter of a Baptist Preacher who was also one of the most respected activists of the Civil Rights movement. Rev. Franklin was the chief organizer of Detroit’s “Walk to Freedom” and on June 23, 1963, Rev. Franklin marched, arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King through the streets of Detroit.
When she was ten years old, her mother died of a heart attack, and her grandmother and a few other women went around to the house regularly to help Rev. Franklin with the children. One of the women who helped was Mahalia Jackson.
With a Baptist preacher as a father, and the Queen of Gospel as a caretaker, it seemed inevitable that Aretha would find her career in faith music rather than secular. But it wasn’t what Aretha felt. And with her father’s support, Aretha set forth on a career that established her as the indisputable Queen of Soul.
Aretha is one of the people who contributed to the soundtrack of the lives of us Baby Boomers, who cannot say or type the word, R-E-S-P-E-C-T without singing that song behind it. For over 50 years, she gave us her ALL. Yes, she was gifted with an amazing set of pipes, but she was FEARLESS! And she had an enormous appetite to know more. She sought out the help of a vocal coach to help her to understand more about opera, and even at the end of her life, she was working on an aria by Korngold. She worked tirelessly on the piano partly because she remembered how well her own mother played.
The last public performance Aretha gave, was at Elton John’s AIDS benefit in 2017 at St. John the Divine in Harlem. Elton John has said that Aretha’s piano playing is highly underrated. He feels she was one of the best keyboardists he has ever known. I guess we were so amazed by her voice and her heart that we took her playing for granted. But her talents were not overlooked. Like McCain she has some impressive medals given to her by sitting Presidents. She has more Grammy awards than we can count, and honorary doctorates from Harvard, Yale, UPenn, Princeton, Bethune-Cookman and several others. She was given the title Diva, but she never acted like one. She was, by all accounts, generous, a steadfast friend, and she loved to cook. Back when MTV was a network devoted to music, they sent a camera crew to Detroit to get some footage for a special about her. When the crew arrived, she announced that she had made them fried chicken and told them to find a seat at the table before they got to work.
Here is a sample of that playing Elton John was talking about.
Much is made of one of her 1998 performance at the Grammy Awards, when she filled in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti, and sang Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot. Mind you, this was one of many brilliant Grammy performances she did over the span of her career, but this is one that has received much notice this past week, perhaps because it showed her willingness to do something people did not expect from her, and her ability to learn it fast, and do it in her own way. WHICH SHE DID. Many opera purists were furious, but most people were impressed, that not only she had the guts to do it, but that she did not give us a tentative performance. She gave it everything she had. And it is glorious because of it.
Her performance in THE BLUES BROTHERS movie from 1984, showed us she could also act. That performance is one of my personal favorite Aretha moments. The instant I hear, “THINK!” I immediately want to get out of my seat. (remind me to watch that clip when and if I ever reach the age of 90)
Although she was born in Tennessee, when her family moved to Detroit early in her life, she adopted Detroit as her home. She was never enticed to head for LA or New York. Detroit was home, and it was there that she raised her family and took walks in Chene Park, which will now be re-named in her honor.
These past days I have learned so much about this remarkable woman, that I did not know. I have been a fan of hers all my life, but because of her lack of pretentiousness and her quiet humility, I had to find that out all by myself. That is unusual in this world of shameless self-aggrandizement.
Recently, Aretha was asked what, out of all the things she accomplished in her life, was she the most proud. She said, “I am a wonderful mother and grandmother.”
Farewell to the Queen.
In 1985, Aretha Franklin asked the important question, “How’d you get those pants so tight?” in the song FREEWAY OF LOVE. Today, parked outside The Greater Grace Temple, where her funeral was held, over 100 pink Cadillacs were parked outside. (The wife of the Pastor of the church hooked something up with Mary Kay Cosmetics, who give away pink Cadillacs to their top sellers. You gotta love it)