music friday: 1999 (aretha)
music friday: 2000

on aretha

"Respect" hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart on June 3, 1967. My memory, like most Boomers, is that Top 40 radio was very democratic ... you could hear just about anything on the radio, if you didn't like one song you'd surely like the next one. The artists who filled the top 10 of that chart reflected this: The Young Rascals, The Happenings, Engelbert Humperdink, The Mamas and the Papas, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Supremes, Arthur Conley, Jefferson Airplane, and The Temptations. Popular acts with popular hits ... OK, I had to look up The Happenings ... and I'm not here to say they didn't have an impact as that summer began (The Summer of Love), even if, in Tom Donahue's infamous words, "AM Radio Is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up the Airwaves". No one was a more dedicated listener to FM "Underground" Radio than I was, starting the fall of 1967. But Top 40 was still what drove us, as high-school teenagers. When you went cruising, it was with The Wolfman on the car radio, not Tom Donahue.

Soul music was all over the charts. Joining The Supremes, Arthur Conley, and The Temptations on the Hot 100 that week were acts like The Marvelettes, James and Bobby Purify, The Four Tops, Dionne Warwick, Booker T.  & the MG's, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, Otis & Carla, Brenton Wood, Lou Rawls, James Brown and the Famous Flames, Ray Charles, Otis Redding (solo), The 5th Dimension, Toussaint McCall, King Curtis, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, The Bar-Kays, Esther Phillips, and The Staple Singers.

There was a lot of good music then. I'm not being nostalgic ... there is a lot of good music now, too, there always is. But I want to place "Respect" in the context of its time.

But with all that good music, "Respect" stood out. And that isn't to dismiss the other hits ... songs like "Groovin'" and "Sweet Soul Music" and "Somebody to Love" are still part of my regular listening.

Wesley Morris got it right:

Depending on the house you grew up in and how old you are, “Respect” is probably a song you learned early. The spelling lesson toward the end helps. So do the turret blasts of “sock it to me” that show up here and there. But, really, the reason you learn “Respect” is the way “Respect” is sung. Redding made it a burning plea. Ms. Franklin turned the plea into the most empowering popular recording ever made.

You couldn't not sing along. Although I admit, Aretha's voice was intimidating ... you knew you couldn't keep up with her. So we'd sing backup: "Whoo! Whoo!" "Just a little bit!" "Re-re-re-re Re-re-re-re SPECT!" And, of course, "Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me! Sock it to me!"


[U]nlike any other soul icon except the gospelized Al Green, Franklin managed to outlive her own heyday. Somehow, some way, she made stylistic adjustments on her own terms. While no longer a chart-topping sure shot, she scored her hits and kept up with the times. She had become the queen of pop.

Robert Christgau, "Robert Christgau on Aretha, the Genius Behind a Voice Unlike Any Other"

Aretha is quoted about being at odds with her father with her support for Angela Davis. One can only imagine that he was afraid Aretha was wading in deep and troubled waters by publicly offering financial support to a self-identified communist and symbol of the radical Black Power movement, but Aretha doubles down: "Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I've been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can't get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I'm going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she's a black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people — they've made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that help our people."

dream hampton, "'Black People Will Be Free': How Aretha Lived The Promise Of Detroit"

Aretha sang across generations of discord, bringing harmony and life to everyday aspects of Black American life. While she sang to us all, she most often sang to the Black woman and so you can imagine her songs drifting in and out of the kitchens, warehouses, backs of buses, churches, her songs sitting on the lips of scores of sisters who sang or hummed tunes of love and respect, heartbreak and strength to each other, creating a choir of black pride, love, sexuality and femininity inside of songs that would not only spur confidence, but an endless loop of voices....

In the wake of her legacy, she leaves a mark on the continuing tradition of the American black woman as storyteller and truth-teller; as someone relegated to the margins of American society and, therefore, often able to see a bigger picture of who we actually are and have the capacity and obligation to become. In the absence of justice, there is often art to guide us to our better selves, and so for decades there was Aretha, and her voice, which during our darkest, weakest, happiest and hardest times consistently reached out and said: through the storm and through the night, take my hand.

Tre Johnson, "Aretha and Black America’s Two Biggest Moments"

Because lots of major pop stars now have great, big voices, maybe it’s easy to forget that most Americans had never heard anything quite as dependably great and shockingly big as Ms. Franklin’s. The reason we have watched “Showtime at the Apollo” or “American Idol” or “The Voice” is out of some desperate hope that somebody walks out there and sounds like Aretha. She established a standard for artistic vocal excellence, and it will outlast us all.

Wesley Morris, "Aretha Franklin Had Power. Did We Truly Respect It?"

Everything popular music needs to be is there in Franklin's songs, whether she wrote them or claimed them through phrasing and diction that no other singer could fully imitate (though virtually all, it seems, have tried). Her art defined the political moment that soul music served, but she herself cannot be understood through one narrative. Here are a few of the qualities she embodied: grace and gutbucket emotion; political fervor and deep personal desire; musical expertise and improvisatorial curiosity; humor, rhythm, sexiness, reserve. The spirit. The flesh.

Ann Powers, "Aretha Franklin Was America's Truest Voice"