August 17, 2018

The Queen of Soul, 1942-2018

Today I feel the same way as when I heard Ray Charles died. Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles embodied the best of the musical styles developed by African-American musicians, singers and songwriters. These include jazz, blues, Gospel, rhythm & blues, and soul, of which Aretha was the absolute Queen. A colleague at Hamilton College today said, “She changed us,” and I believe she meant that Aretha raised the bar of what a singer could do to and for you. Aretha’s music touched your head, your heart, and your hips. There was something to think about, there was something to feel, and there was something to make you move.
I had my own unforgettable Aretha Franklin experience. In 2008, as part of the Great Names series at Hamilton College, Aretha performed in the field house on the Hamilton College campus. Typical of many artists of her stature, she brought her own rhythm section, but a local horn section was required. I was asked to contract local musicians to fill the saxophone, brass and percussion chairs. Conveniently, I hired myself as an alto saxophonist.
Aretha Franklin at Hamilton College, 1988

What made the day so memorable, beyond the fact that the Queen of Soul was coming to town, was the heightened abilities required of the contracted musicians. We convened in the late afternoon the day of the concert. I would not describe it as a rehearsal, it was more of a run-through and a not-so-subtle message to be on your game: to pay attention and keep focused on the task at hand. The lengthy song list required that the tunes were not even run all the way through. Intros and endings were played, the music director said, “The rest will be okay, just watch me,” and boy did he mean watch.
The hardest part of the evening was to basically tune out Aretha. How do you not pay attention to Aretha Franklin? No one commanded the stage as she did. But as soon as we horn players looked up to soak in the talent in front of us, we invariably would miss our cue and lose our place in the music. By the way, that was music we had not seen until that afternoon.
Later when people asked me what was it like or how was she, I had to turn the question around and ask them. How was she? I’m not complaining mind you. I shared the stage with Aretha Franklin.
Aretha’s career spanned six decades and, like all iconic artists, the styles of music she performed moved from one genre to another. I will suggest two recordings to listen to, one being rather obscure. In 1973 Aretha was still experimenting with jazz and she chose to record Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere from “West Side Story.” The first time I heard it I was very puzzled. How could she sing so far behind the beat? She was so far behind the beat she was in the wrong measure. This does not indicate that she was making a mistake. Aretha was taking her time. She was letting the music speak for itself, and inserting the lyric where her innate musicality told her to do so. A jazz section follows with Aretha on piano and a fine alto saxophonist. This was not a hit for Aretha, but it brings home to me that her musicianship matched her incredible voice.
The second recording comes from 2015 at the Kennedy Center honors. This was the year that songwriter Carole King was among the group of artists to receive the award. This clip doesn’t need much explaining but you might want to have a tissue close at hand. No one commanded the stage like Aretha Franklin.