Friday, August 17, 2018

Aretha | Lefsetz Letter

Hey nineteen
That’s ‘Retha Franklin
She don’t remember the Queen of Soul

That was recorded by Steely Dan in 1980, when Aretha already appeared to be in the rearview mirror.

But she wasn’t.

Forget the forgettable Arista hits, but remember her appearances on the Grammys, at Obama’s inauguration and the Kennedy Center Honors. Aretha Franklin transcended the hit parade, she was an icon as big as the music business itself. She forged her own path, and we loved her for it.

Now you’ve got to understand it was a different era. That’s right, the baby boomers had it best, they lived through the Beatles and the explosion of soul. Back when you owned a transistor radio instead of a smartphone, when we were all excited by what emanated from the single speaker in the dashboard, when if you wanted to know which way the wind blew, you listened to music.

It started with “Respect.”

1967 was the Summer of Love, it was also the year before the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. There was a brief respite before the darkness overtook the light. Not that the light never shined thereafter, it’s just that we always expected the other shoe to drop, and it did. Tell a denizen of the sixties that racism is now prevalent and minorities are excluded on the voting rolls and their heads spin. We fought for freedom, the sky was the limit, we were on action, not reaction, and ultimately we all got on the same team, rednecks grew their hair, they were ultimately against the Vietnam War, and the twin pillars were Motown and rock.

And then came Aretha.

She started off on Columbia, which didn’t know what to do with her. Sometimes you’re too early, sometimes you’re lacking chemistry, sometimes you need someone to midwife you to success.

Like Jerry Wexler. Used to be the Jews and the blacks walked side by side. Why African-Americans find fault with the Semitic people today I do not know, we’re both minorities, both fighting to end injustice.

And Columbia was part of a conglomerate, whereas the more nimble Atlantic had a long history in black music. Aretha was finally home, at least when it comes to record companies.

What you want
Baby, I got it

Talk about girl power, talk about the beginning of the feminist revolution, Aretha’s place in the pantheon has not been elucidated. It was women who embraced Aretha first, they could hear the power in her voice, her message.

And overnight, “Sock it to me baby” became par of the vernacular. On “Laugh-In,” hell, even Richard Nixon uttered it on television.

That’s the power of a hit single, that’s the power of music, at least back then, can you imagine Trump quoting Kendrick Lamar today?

No way.

But “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” sounded completely different, we shouldn’t have been surprised when she subbed for Pavarotti at the Grammys and hit “Nessun Dorma” far over the fence, she could sing anything, she could make it her own. That’s the mark of a great artist, one who has breadth, who is not one note. Arguably this number is the one that made Goffin and King household names, and it was only a few years later that Carole cut her version on “Tapestry,” but even King would admit that Aretha owns it.

As for “Chain Of Fools,” once again it was a new twist, unconnected to what came before, other than it had soul! Aretha may not have written these songs but she owned them. And unlike Michael Jackson, she did not coin her own moniker and she did not fight for the spotlight, she was quiet about her career, she just kept making hits. Whether it be 1972’s “Rock Steady,” from the album “Young, Gifted And Black,” or the surprise “comeback” hit from 1973, “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” in an era where FM ruled and AM was a backwater. I heard this on the jukebox at the Alibi in Middlebury, Vermont and I had to buy the album, to be able to play it at will, it’s all about the chorus, not that there isn’t so much more.

And then came the victory lap. Aretha’s triumphant appearance in the “Blues Brothers” movie, where she blew every other musician off the screen, owning the movie in a matter of minutes, back in an era where musical performances onscreen were still rare, unavailable, this voice that emanated from the radio, the performance was every bit as energetic and believable and then…

Aretha disappeared.

Well, there was a bit of MTV action, especially 1985’s “Freeway Of Love,” but the recording was overproduced, a relic of the early MTV era, when the oldsters still had traction before the popsters and the rappers took over. Aretha’s performance was stellar, but she didn’t star in the song like she did in previous numbers and the metronomic, rhythm machine track didn’t swing like the hits of old, it lacked an element of soul, not that the verse was not catchy.

But Aretha suddenly became unavailable. Especially at the turn of the century, when seemingly every classic act took to the boards since they could no longer have radio hits, in an endless dash for cash, to the point where the younger generation became unfamiliar with her, she certainly was a legend, but they didn’t realize she was a living, breathing person who could still deliver. She was a diva, she had to do it her way, but when you saw her her magnetism attracted you and then you found yourself hovering over the arena, able to fly on the notes alone.

She knew she was that good, that great, that phenomenal, truly above everybody else. But she didn’t have to advertise herself, the penumbra was irrelevant, all she had to do was open her mouth.

For her last famous public appearance on the Kennedy Center Honors. You didn’t want to follow Aretha, you couldn’t! She came out playing the piano, people aren’t supposed to be trained, but Aretha paid her dues in church, she didn’t burst on the scene with no backstory. And when she stood and shed her fur and sang… You could say belted, but this was not Mariah Carey, Aretha was always in service to the song, she showed off without trying to, all she had to do was perform!

And there you have it folks, she was here and now she’s gone.

Too many of them are gone. From Bowie to Frey to those who O.D.’ed before their time, like Prince. But pancreatic cancer got the Queen of Soul. There’s really no treatment, it’s a death sentence, a couple of months and you’re out, done, finished.

And in this case Roger Friedman gave us advance warning, so we weren’t surprised, today these deaths come from seemingly nowhere, like records.

But still…

76 ain’t young, but it’s not old either. Paul McCartney is 76 and he’s got a new album, he’s still touring, he’s still alive, we expect these musicians to live forever.

But they don’t.

And when they’re gone they’re never coming back, like the era they dominated.

But most of the classic acts have been forgotten, touring sans original members, there are only a few giants, superstars who can still sell every ticket, but no one lives forever and at some point this era will fade.

Will the music survive?

It appears so, because it was built on a different foundation. When you could not be famous for nothing, when you had to have talent to make it, when you had to pay endless dues to break through. We baby boomers lived through the Renaissance, they painted and sculpted after Raphael and Michelangelo, but at no time thereafter was there such a burst of genius, such dominance. Same deal with music. I know, I know, you want to believe it’s the same as ever, but change happens, and it has.

So certainly spin the records. But if you ever had a hankering to see these legends, go now. It was joke that this was the last time for the Stones, that you had to see them before they died, but at some point Mick and Keith will truly go, then what?

It’ll be like today. Aretha was here, always in the back of our mind, the records still as vital as they were yesterday, and now, pfft, she’s gone!

Kinda funny in a country focused on youth. We only give legends their due when they pass.

But that’s not true of Aretha, she was always here, those records are forever. Just go to a wedding or bar mitzvah, you’ll hear ’em, everybody knows them. As big as Michael Jackson was, Aretha was bigger. But she lived her life privately, with fewer shenanigans. And she tried to live it for herself, but there were endless tragedies and mistreatments. But still, we were and still are the beneficiaries of her fantastic talent. She ultimately suffered for us.

And we still remember the Queen of Soul.


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