Today, Aretha Franklin passed...and it sucks. I'm sad. I'm a lifelong fan feeling what a lot of people are feeling today. Aretha was always there. We didn't think about it, she just was. We took it for granted because she was just so familiar.
We know all the music. We've seen the performances. We know the Kennedy Center You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman moment for Carole King. We know Amazing Grace before President Obama. We love her Precious Lord at Martin Luther King Jr's funeral. We love those grainy black and white performances that we Youtube now, where we strain our eyes to make out her face . . . but we watch the whole thing and are better music lovers for it. We ALL know the words to Respect. We know the hairstyles and the fur coats. We know the gowns and the strong elegance with which she wore them. We know the Gyvenchy purse on the piano.
By the way, I'd never heard the reason for the purse on the piano (which she did even recently). Back when she started in the business, black singers in the south would often get stiffed on their payment for a performance. So she started demanding the cash up front, stuffed it in her purse, and kept it in her eyeline throughout the whole show. It was her money, she was gonna leave with it. For the rest of her career, if you look carefully, you can see that purse on stage...on the piano, under the piano. It's there.
In 1986, I might have been the only high school freshman on my bus listening to Sam Cooke and The Supremes and SUPER obscure Ike & Tina Turner music. Sidenote: it was my parents that turned me on to Ike & Tina. And my Dad handed me my first Supremes collection . . . the bluest blue cover with three records and collectible portraits of each of the ladies.). Thank you, guys! Hopefully, I wasn't the only one listening to Aretha. She showed up on my radar with a new, contemporary song "Freeway of Love", which was part of a resurgence of her radio-play career. It didn't take long for me to make the connection, "ooohhh, she's the Respect lady". And that was it, I went in head first in to the deep, deep archives . . . starting with the "30 Greatest Hits" album. That was all I needed for a good long time. Baby, I Love You. I Never Loved a Man. I Say a Little Prayer. I loved it all. I was certainly into her new, current, pop album. But, the "old stuff" was IT.
It wasn't until my adult years that I realized that she wasn't just a singer that made me feel things. And I felt a lot of things (chief among these was that I didn't care what was popular then, "THIS is GOOOOOOLDEN"). But I realized that she wasn't just a singer, she was a figure . . . a notable figure . . . an important figure. She was a part of some of the most important events of the civil rights movement. She was paying underpaid musicians their worth when no one else was. She created music that no one knew we needed until she gave it to us. She was respected across the globe more than I could have ever imagined. That's when I realized that one of my favorite singers was one of the greatest performers in history. One of the coolest, most elegant, most talented, most badass women that we'll ever know. I never took her for granted after that.
She’s gone today, but she's not . . . really.