Salvation in a Song
One of my biggest fantasies when I was working as an A&R man (talent scout) in the record business was to sign Aretha Franklin and make a record with her that would be worthy of her talent. Aretha had been on Clive Davis’ Arista label since the late 70’s, producing mostly schlocky stuff in a somewhat feeble attempt to be contemporary. (An exception, maybe, would be her 1985 album Who’s Zooming Who with its hit, “Freeway of Love.”) The fantasy was that I’d do for her something similar to what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash—strip away the artifice and get things back down to the singer and the song. There were so many times that I heard a song and would think, “Wow, that would be amazing for Aretha.” I never pursued it; I was trying to make my name with contemporary artists and I had heard that Aretha wasn’t interested in making that kind of record—that people had been clamoring at her for years to “make a record like she used to,” like the ones she made in her golden era on Atlantic Records from 1967-1972, and she was sick of hearing it.
Those records on Atlantic—“Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” “Don’t Play That Song,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Spirit In The Dark,” “Oh Me Oh My,” “Dr. Feelgood,” and more are the reason Aretha Franklin became the Queen of Soul, then, now and forever. It’s hard to imagine now, over fifty years later, how shocking those records were when they were released—as the writer Greil Marcus once wrote, “She made the Rolling Stones seem like little kids.” There was simply no precedence in 1967 for a voice like that in popular music, a voice that was both technically perfect and utterly apocalyptic, bringing the apotheosis of Gospel to Pop like no one before (including Ray Charles) or since. She did something that very few artists have—she became the ultimate embodiment of the music she sang. Soul became Aretha, and Aretha became Soul.
For all the joy those records created, pain was at the bedrock of all them. The pain of heartbreaks big and small, of loss, of injustice, of wanting and needing someone who you know isn’t good for you, of longing, of being made a fool, of never quite feeling like you’ve got it made. Aretha loved to talk about when soldiers who had served in Vietnam would tell her what her records had meant to them over there—one soldier told her about how his entire platoon danced together in between battles with the Vietcong to “Chain of Fools,” knowing full well that they were the dancing fools being screwed over by their country for a dishonest war that was both unjust and unwinnable. It was the pain embedded in those records that made them, and continue to make them, about as universal as any music ever made. Aretha’s voice and her genius for phrasing was a gift—and don’t think for a second that she didn’t pay for every bit of it.
But—and this is a big but—salvation was equally at the heart of Aretha’s music. That even in the midst of the worst pains and indignities the world brings, there is the Divine, which takes form and reveals itself in ways big and small—in love and connection, in the experience of beauty, in sex, in friendship, in art, in music and dancing, in the delight of experiencing something real, true and beautiful. Aretha was that something real, true and beautiful, and it was not subject to debate—arguing about Aretha’s greatness would be something like arguing about the beauty of mountains, or the moon, or the greatest sunset you’ve ever seen—an exercise in foolishness. Aretha transmutation of her pain through her music—of losing her mother when she was a little girl, of the complicated relationship she had with her father, of being a teenage mother, of her failed relationships, of suffering from depression, of being an African-American woman in a racist country, of losing so many people close to her such as Martin Luther King Jr. (when MLK was in Detroit, he stayed at Aretha’s family's house and she sang at his funeral), Sam Cooke and the great R&B saxophonist, King Curtis—was one of the treasures she gave to the world. As President Obama said of her, "Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears—the same way that Ray Charles’s version of ‘America the Beautiful’ will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed—because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.”
Reconciliation and transcendence in this world of ours feels a long way off as I write this. But I know, deep down in my heart, that it is possible. And in many ways, I learned that from Aretha Franklin. Long live the Queen of Soul. Thank you, Aretha.