Friday, August 17, 2018

The Queen is Dead.  There Will Be No Other

by Denis Ferrara

“MUSIC
is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful,” said Plato.

The ancient Greek never knew Aretha Franklin, but who can deny that Franklin’s music has given “soul to the universe?”
I HAD just finished this column on Miss Franklin, when word came of her passing. Although gravely ill at home, being given palliative care, surrounded by friends and family — visited by world leaders, music and movie stars — the great singer (and those three words are a pallid description indeed!) was said to be at peace, but still hopeful that somehow, her time here was not yet over.  It was over, but of course, as in the case of all profoundly moving artists, her time here will never be “over” or done — her art will live forever, at least so long as some aspect of civilization as we know it, continues.  That is a comfort we can all appreciate.

I’m no music critic, and I certainly can’t accurately critique Aretha’s career progression, the honing of her voice and style, the tones, the notes, the professionalism, the strength and intelligence behind what seemed an effortless flow from her inner self; that passionate gospel-infused core. 

I can only recall what Aretha’s music meant to me as a young person, even if initially some of the lyrics went over my head.  Who knew that “Respect” and “Think” were anthems for civil rights and women’s empowerment?  Soon I did, but at first it was just that sound, that voice over the radio. I remember clearly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard those songs — arguing with my mother about going out riding my bike, or stuck at home on a rainy Saturday.  “Chain of Fools” knocked me for a loop at gym class, over a transistor radio. (It was blessed distraction to take my mind off the absurdity — as I saw it — of wasting time at a school gymnasium.)
The '60s became the '70s and there was always an Aretha song to relate to, swoon to, groove to — whether it was feelin’ like a natural woman (sure, I had my “gender fluid” period), or that house that Jack built, those stunning versions of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” mooning over “Spanish Harlem” or depending on who I was crushing on, making “You’re All I Need to Get By” or  “Oh, Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby”), my personal “love” themes and jukebox obsessions. 
Time went on and Aretha seemed to change course or appeared (to me, anyway) not as current or “popular.”  But I kept my “Aretha’s Gold” vinyl album spinning for years, and when I began my career with Liz Smith in 1981, had more of an opportunity to keep track of what Ms. Franklin was actually up to — the concerts, the newer music and then the dazzling mid-1980’s “comeback” with “Freeway of Love,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” “Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves” with Annie Lennox  and “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” with George Michael.
I had the opportunity to see Franklin in the flesh, twice.  Once was a performance at Radio City Music Hall, which I attended with the archaeologist Iris Love. Miss Love was — and is — generally concerned with things made of bronze, gold or marble, buried long, long ago, but there she was — there we were! — dancing in the aisles and screaming like crazy people as Aretha rocked the house.

Much later, in 2012, I attended the New York City memorial concert for Marvin Hamlisch. It was a splendid occasion in every respect, but made historic by the fact that Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand and Miss Franklin would all appear and perform.  Luckily, for the sake of my brain not exploding, the three legends did not share the stage jointly.
Aretha performing at a tribute concert for Marvin Hamlisch in 2012. Photo: Reuters
Still, the fact that they were all in proximity to each other, and that I’d see them all perform, one after another, on one night, did at least cause my brain, if not to explode, then at least expand.  Minnelli and Streisand were great, but I’d seen them both, often.  Miss Franklin was a rarity. This is what I wrote:

The two legends backstage.
“There is something called a  “star entrance” and then there was Aretha on Tuesday night. Epic!  Slooowwly she sashayed onto the stage, remarkably trim, exquisitely dressed in an ensemble of black and white. She gestured to Marvin’s photo, she regally gestured to a gasping, whooping crowd.

“Suddenly, it was All About Aretha. She stood at the microphone and poured out ‘Nobody Does It Better,’ (the theme from ‘The Spy Who Loved Me.’) Well, nobody does it better than Aretha and the pull she exerted on the audience was visceral. Many had never seen the legend perform live, given her fear of flying. And it was like, “Oh, my God, that voice is for real!”   It sure was.

“And one number was not enough. After finishing Marvin’s composition, she launched into a powerful, gut-wrenching gospel number, “Deep River.” With all respect to the late Mr. Hamlisch, it could have turned into an Aretha Franklin concert with very little effort, that’s how electrified the audience was. And then, she bowed to Marvin’s portrait, sloooowwly sashayed off stage, gave another salute to Marvin, another grand gesture to the audience. Then she was gone, leaving us limp, agog. She’d wrung-out that classy New York crowd, for sure. They don’t call Miss Franklin the Queen for nuttin’.”
A FEW years later, in December of 2015, I caught Aretha on TV,  performing at the Kennedy Center Honors, for Carole King’s induction.  We were on vacation and not writing, but soon as we were back in the office I advised readers:

“If you missed, in the glut of Christmas specials or personal holiday traveling or entertaining, Miss Franklin's performance of Carole King's "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors telecast, I order you to go to YouTube right now!

“Not only was Aretha in blazing good voice, she came out onstage like the I-don't-give-a-damn diva she is. Holding a purse (Why? Why not? — The Queen of England is never without her purse!) and draped in a politically incorrect floor-length mink coat. She was every inch what we want a star to be.
“Then she sat down at the piano, began to play, and sing, and reminded us that before the likes of Alicia Keys and Lady Gaga, there was multi-tasking Aretha. And baby, when she got up and let that mink fall to the floor, whoa! (Miss Franklin is in the sixth decade of her fame. What star, today, 50 years from now, is going to give you the real deal, the real talent, the total commitment, passion and professionalism of Aretha? Sorry, nobody.)

“The entire number and everything about Aretha's presence was spine-tingling. Probably the best piece of entertainment/art I saw over the holidays.

“Oh, about the purse. It was probably stuffed with cash. Aretha was famous back in the day for always insisting on being paid in cash when she could get away with it. (Yes, it was not a concert, but a tribute to composer Carole King, but why allow sentiment to cloud one's mind to the bottom line? Floor-length mink coats are expensive.)”
BUT my favorite memory of Aretha Franklin was way, way back, sometime in the late 1980’s early '90’s.  I’d written, for the column, a rather glowing review of a Franklin TV performance, but — being me — I had to add that while her God-given curvaceous bounty was a wonderful thing, perhaps she or her advisers could try to steer her clear of treacherously unstable strapless gowns.  A wardrobe malfunction seemed imminent, it was distracting.

Who knew Aretha Franklin read the Liz Smith column?  On the very day the item appeared, we received a telegram — yep, a telegram (the internet was in its infancy.)  It read:  “Liz Smith: Who the hell are you to tell me how to dress?  Stick to gossip.  And at least I HAVE something to put into a strapless gown!  Aretha Franklin.” 

Liz was upset, “Denis, I knew that you shouldn’t have put that in!” (Even though Miss Smith herself had commented negatively on the gown.)  I was thrilled and amused. “Liz!  We just got a telegram from Aretha Franklin, and another item!”

The next day we printed Aretha’s complaint, apologized and agreed we were not fashion mavens and that Miss Franklin could wear whatever she liked, she was a goddess and rules did not apply. 

The only rule that ever applied to Aretha Franklin is that she raise her glorious voice in song. She did, and tonight the angels have stopped singing, silent in awe and ... Respect.

RIP, Aretha.
 
Contact Denis here.