The Queen of Soul
I was going to start this entry on an accusational track. I was going to say that I blame the radio. That I blame the entire musical culture that existed during my youth and continues today for exposing me to a paltry 2 songs by Aretha Franklin in my entire life – Respect and Natural Woman. And indeed, my frustration is not entirely unfounded. “Respect” was so overplayed throughout my middle school career, over the airwaves and in particular at high school dances and mitzvahs (don’t get me started), that I actually acquired a bitter dislike for the song and its saucy vocalist, a dislike that has taken me a long time to overcome.
As a conscientious young gentleman hearing this song over and over, I also began to take offense to my female peers’ devout affirmation of the lyrics. “Respect?” Of course I offer respect to the other gender. I don’t need a song to tell me that. I don’t need you to get all righteous about it. At least, those were the thoughts going through my prepubescent mind. I was so preoccupied grappling with the ramifications of those “Respect” lyrics that I overlooked the monumental singer behind them. And to be fair, Respect and Natural Women are both great songs. Not only that, Aretha gets more representation than I initially conceded.
Until You Come Back To Me, Chain of Fools, Daydreaming, and Think are all-time classics that most definitely grace our channels of popular culture. I had to sit and think for a few minutes, but those tunes eventually came to mind. For a moment, I was afraid that I could only name two songs by the Queen of Soul, the woman with more #1 singles on the Billboard R&B chart than any other singer, and the woman who is arguably the greatest singer of all time.
A few weeks ago I flew back east to attend the reunion and commencement ceremonies of my beloved alma mater. On the flight home, my iPod died and the live satellite television was not functioning due to atypical turbulence in the air. Normally I would be content reading whatever book I brought along, but on this occasion the book was losing my attention. For those of you who fly frequently and lack an uncanny ability to doze off in discombobulated positions in an airplane seat, you know that flying becomes miserable without suitable entertainment. Out of options, I fortuitously turned to the Delta InFlight Music Database, where what should I encounter but “Rare and Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul” by none other than Aretha Franklin.
I listened to the entire album, 35 tracks in all, from start to finish, mesmerized throughout. Something clicked inside my head. Now it all made sense. After 35 songs, I could honestly say that I understood why Aretha was called the Queen of Soul. Few soul singers can match the versatility, vocal virtuosity, sheer power, and gritty passion of Ms. Franklin. I can’t think of any women. (Caution, this part of the blog post devolves into blatant subjectivity). Stevie Wonder comes to mind as a worthy comparison in terms of R&B superstardom, but where Aretha makes her mark in the blues, Stevie’s work delves more into the subgenres of pop and funk. James Brown has the power and passion to match Aretha, but not the thoughtful nuance. Otis Redding, as we know, was the original recording artist for “Respect,” but he meets a similar fate as JB.
Comparing Franklin against the great Sam Cooke gives me pause. But the mere decade or so that separates their respective golden ages as musicians is in fact a vast chasm. Socially, culturally, politically, musically, America was transformed upon the arrival of the 1960s. Sam Cooke’s most famous song, A Change Is Gonna Come, was also one of his last. He recorded the timeless ballad in 1963, as the Civil Rights Movement escalated into the national consciousness, and passed away the following year. The bulk of Cooke’s material hails from the 1950s, and in comparison to Aretha’s it is almost too tame. Many of Cooke’s lyrics are a tad cutesy, and as for his voice, its shimmering purity is also its weakness. Singing comes almost too easily for him, if I am even allowed to make such a critique. Never do we hear Cooke strain or wail brazenly in the way that Aretha does with such emotional efficacy.
By my count, that leaves no one else but Sir Ray Charles. After watching an Aretha duet with Smokey Robinson, I was blown away by their chemistry, but nevertheless if anyone could be the yin to her yang, that anyone would be Ray. Rolling Stone Magazine ranks Ray #2 behind Aretha on its list of greatest singers of all time (across all genres, mind you). Musically, Ray recorded as many uptempo and slow blues tunes as Aretha. Both can rock out, exhibiting tremendous vocal range and offering some edginess along the way. Both have great career longevity. In terms of public memory, Ray has to his advantage an eponymous (and successful) major motion picture already to his credit. Aretha has Respect, one of the most famous songs ever made, and a song that people will never stop playing. In my humble estimation, only Ray Charles can match the force that is Aretha Franklin, and even that assessment pushes the envelope.
I’ll never forget those 3 hours listening to Aretha on my flight from JFK to SFO on May 24th. Especially since I bought the album on Amazon.com the next day.