The death of Aretha Franklin should remind us that great singers are more than just the soundtrack of our lives.
They lived their own lives, sang their own songs, but the thing is, it is through our own lives that we remember them, marking passages: The feel of the city on a hot night in August, that beautiful brown-eyed Sicilian girl in your car on the first date, smiling at you, the windows down, Aretha belting out “Chain of Fools.”
“I sing to the realists,” Franklin once said, “people who accept it like it is.”
And so, to be real about her passing, we know that recordings will save her voice for us. We can always find her when we need her. She’s just a click away.
But now that she’s quiet and gone, and the news is full of memories and the tributes flow and her greatest hits are playing, something happens. At least it happened to me, and if you loved her voice, maybe it happened to you.
Like a pin withdrawn from a wheel. It rolls and spins away.
A man I know who has made a success in the ruthless business of American popular music once told me that there are many great voices, but far fewer great writers.
“There are a million girls with great pipes,” he said. “But there aren’t a million songwriters who can write the music that you’ll always remember.”
Maybe so, but I think Aretha Franklin’s voice transcended all that. Hers was America’s voice, so fine, so strong, so female, a natural woman.
Did she make her mark in those turbulent times of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when music was, as now, a declaration of your personal politics? Yes. The activist and comedian Dick Gregory noted that America would hear her voice four or five times an hour on radio, all through the day and night, but would hear Martin Luther King Jr. only on the news.
But she knew herself and the power she had to shape culture, and she did it through her songs.
“Politics are not my arena,” she said. “Music is.”
The broadcast tributes are doing what they do, playing her classic hits, and videos showing her singing and walking, the microphone in one hand, dropping the fur coat with the other, her signature move.
But to know her voice, the power of those pipes, there is some old Aretha you might want to search out. My friend and podcast partner Jeff Carlin of “The Chicago Way” told me that to appreciate the voice, just Google Aretha and Steve Allen.
A singer who can sing and sit while playing is an amazing thing.
Steve Allen is ancient history now. A national late-night talk show host even before Johnny Carson, who is ancient history as well. Allen was a comedian and musician, and he invited Aretha Franklin on his show in 1964.
It was live, with no producers and sound magicians to electronically protect the artist from themselves, which is why many singers avoid live TV. They don’t have the voice for it.
But Aretha Franklin did. She sang a classic, “It Won’t Be Long.”
Baby, here I am/ Oh, by the railroad tracks/ Waiting for my baby/ He’s coming on back.
And she showed us, while playing the piano, that even while sitting down she could project that voice and hit notes that reached into you, so she could hold your heart in her hand.
Many years later, at the Kennedy Center in 2015, singing in front of President Barack Obama, she sat and played piano, singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” the voice still working, the president wiping tears from his eyes at the beauty of what she meant to him, and to us.
The Queen of Soul had her troubles. She lost her mother when she was young. Her father was shot by burglars and lived in a coma for years. She was the godmother of another great voice, Whitney Houston, who later dissolved into tragedy.
But Franklin kept her private life private. And there was a sassiness that America loved in her, a great star with a sense of humor, answering her front door in her bare feet. She knew who she was. She didn’t have to impress anyone. And yes, she was hefty, but wisecracked to Ebony magazine that her diet involved Slim-Fast and younger men.
And through it all there was that voice.
Years ago, there was Aretha and a beautiful young Sicilian girl and a new red sports car in Chicago.
I didn’t make much money then, just enough for gas and to take my girlfriend out for dinner. I had a broken jaw then, wired shut, so I didn’t eat much. We went to the clubs and closed one down, got back in the car and drove south with the T-tops off, Aretha Franklin’s voice coming out of the speakers.
We drove up through old Maxwell Street, to Jim’s Original Polish sausage stand. There was one light shining, and other cars were pulling up, from all over the city, to the edge of the cone of light in the dark.
Blacks, whites, Latinos, rich and poor like us, and Aretha’s voice, like that light, cutting through the night.
“Aretha’s gone,” my wife said. “You remember that night, on Maxwell Street?”
Yes, I said, I remember.