“Trying to grow up is hurting, you know. You make mistakes. You try to learn from them, and when you don’t it hurts even more.”
Transplanted to Detroit, Michigan at the age of four, Aretha Franklin is a singer and pianist, and the daughter of Reverend C. L. Franklin, a prominent Baptist minister. From an early age, Aretha and her sisters Erma and Carolyn sang in the church. The precocious Aretha was featured from an early age.
Her professional career began at Columbia Records. During her six year relationship with Columbia (1960-1966), during which she was cast primarily as as a jazz pianist and vocalist, she was unable to achieve widespread popularity. Her break came when signing with Atlantic Records after her contract expired. Together with the guidance of a visionary, a music producer, and great supporting musicians, Aretha Franklin became “The Queen Of Soul”, achieving lifetime commercial and critical acclaim with her music in the late sixties and early seventies.
Aretha Franklin (b. 1942), singer, pianist, songwriter
New York City’s Atlantic Records hit the jackpot with Aretha, but it wasn’t luck. Brothers Neshui and Ahmet Ertegun were music fanatics who started way back when, with Neshui handling jazz and Ahmet handling the rhythm and blues acts. By the mid-sixties, they had developed a well earned reputation for identifying talent. After signing Aretha, they made the unconventional decision to pair her with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in northern Alabama. Much has been written of the juxtaposition of a Detroit city girl playing with the soulful southern boys in Alabama, but in America, if you can play, then you get to play. Together they made essential late sixties soul music, full of soul and syncopation sweet as an August evening.
Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Atlantic Records
What separates Aretha from most famous female singers is her piano playing. Not only a great singer, Aretha’s gospel-tinged piano speaks volumes. One of the great rhythm pianists in pop music history, she fits right in with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and The Memphis Horns.
The Memphis Horns are:
The New York Studio
After several albums in Muscle Shoals, Ertegun and Wexler moved Aretha back to New York City for the second phase of her career, which yielded fewer good songs, but maybe more great ones. Once again, the Franklin sisters were given great studio musicians to work with. These great house bands dominated the pop charts in my adolescence: Motown, Atlantic, Stax, and Chess. It was a great time to be a pop musician, a fertile ground for ideas, and these company bands played with feel and that inimitable human precision. Here’s a partial list of the Atlantic performers on “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady”:
A Full Life, A Great Woman
Aretha Franklin dropped out of school to have her first child at age fourteen. She will only refer to the father as “Romeo”. By fifteen she had her second child by another man. Aretha reflects on early motherhood in this quote:
“Although Romeo and Aretha talked about running away to get married, they never did. During her sixth month of pregnancy, the teenager dropped out of school. Just after turning fourteen, she gave birth to her son, Clarence, named after her father. To this day the star remans philosophical and spiritual about the early motherhood that faced her in 1956: ‘All children are a gift from God. All children are miracles…I accepted this blessing…The romantic relationship that once burned so brightly burned out. But the love between the mother and a child never dies.’ Aretha’s mother and sister Erma helped care for the infant and watched little Clarence when his mother needed time to herself.”
— excerpt from “Aretha Franklin” by Jim McAvoy
How does anyone handle the responsibilities of early motherhood and yet rise to such heights as a public figure? So difficult to do; Loretta Lynn did it, too. Aretha’s family helped out. The father and three sisters all performed in their church, and must have known that Aretha was special. Aretha took that long road to the top, carrying the family on her strong shoulders. When her father was shot in a botched robbery attempt, she quit her career and helped care for him the next five years.
Don’t Play That Song
My father began dating soon after the divorce. I remember a gal named Ginny, and one named Atsuko, but nobody knows whether she actually existed. But the first one who started coming around often was Joan from Berkeley, back in the days when you could drive between Berkeley and Menlo Park in about an hour. Joan was attractive, tall and shapely, with short brown hair. I don’t remember what she did to support herself. I was ten when this happened, so details are sketchy. I spent a bit of time with the two of them.
One day, Joan and I were alone together and driving to the local dump to deposit some garbage. There were two good AM stations at that time: KFRC (610 AM) and KYA (1260 AM). We’re driving, and Aretha’s “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” comes on. It’s a brand new song, and we’ve never heard it. I’m thinking it’s just OK, but Joan is really liking the song, perhaps a sign of maturity, or a testament to her enlightened, mature taste in music. She was hip, and she was digging Aretha. After the song ends, she wants to hear the DJ call out the song’s name, and I believe I let that happen, before I leaned over to spin the dial quickly from KFRC to KYA. She reached down and kind of slapped my hand away from the radio. “Don’t do that.” I respond. “Why not? KFRC is on a commercial break.” Then Joan says, “No! They may play the song again.” After that, there was sort of an uncomfortable silence in the car on the way home. She may have been quite irritated, though she repeated the title “don’t play the song for me” fondly to herself a couple of times.
Another time I showed up at the house unexpected, and Joan was gardening in the backyard in a bathing suit. She was maybe forty feet away, with her back turned away from me, when I said “Hi Joan!”. She casually pulled her shoulder straps up as she turned to say hello, she was sunning herself. It was pretty clear she was disappointed about the intrusion. I didn’t see her chest naked, or anything like that. That would have been a first.
Eventually, Joan faded away. She was a bit rough around the edges anyway. After that, my father’s love life disappeared into complete anonymity. For many years, if there was somebody, we didn’t know about it.
I’ve had a hard time recently, pondering how my behavior shaped the family. Did I have anything to do with Dad’s decision to take his love life underground? I was so curious, and I idolized Dad. He was a cool guy, well liked and admired by his peers. Perhaps it just became too risky to have me around, to have a chance at great love, only to lose what he found. My father was very happy the last thirty or so years of his life. He carved out the space he needed. He was always kind and charitable; he loved us and was never spiteful. He made himself available to see his children; he wasn’t necessarily stingy, but things had to be planned in advance. We couldn’t just drop by.
I got my fair share of attention — I was sort of irrepressible, plus he and I had common interests, mostly sports and music. I think it surprised both of us when I started getting good at basketball. Daddy died in 2003, and I was satisfied with our relationship, and tended to overlook the fact my father maintained a separate life away from his children. But my sister suffered and was bitter — she felt forgotten, and didn’t get enough Daddy with daughter time. My mother never found another man she loved like Dad, and ended up alone the last twenty five years of her cancer shortened life.
I wonder whether dealing with a precocious, intense son was too much, and pushed my father out of the family. It’s unlikely. One day, during his last few weeks of life, he and I were listening to some favorite old songs, he gave me this puzzled look of acknowledgment and said, “Wow. You were the one. My friend who was really interested in music.” I believe I responded by saying that music would play an important role in the rest of my life. He was a bit stingy when it came to compliments, which was strange given his happy, even keel demeanor. But he made success look very easy, the college football star married to a former Ivy League homecoming queen. Near the end, he told me I was a better basketball player than he was as a football player, but I doubt it. I worked harder than he did, but he had a calm confidence that served him well. I sabotaged my success at times; he rarely if ever let that happen.
At the end of his life, I think he finally understood what I gave him. We played basketball together until he could no longer run, and when I became interested in golf, he resumed playing and developed a rich social life at his local golf club. I was a friend who liked the same kinds of music, and researched and found copies of some of his favorite songs from his past.
My sister and I took Dad to Game 4 of the 2002 World Series, just two weeks before he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It was perhaps the greatest day of our lives together, a deeply moving experience for all of us. And it was my idea. My Dad deserves some credit for putting up with me, and following along at times, because I have good ideas. I served him well — did he have a choice?
My favorite YouTube clip of Aretha Franklin is this performance of “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”, written by Ahmet Ertegun. Aretha with her sisters on the Cliff Richard show. When she looks into he camera at the beginning of the second verse, her sweetness melts me.
My sister settled in northwest California and raised a family, one girl and one boy. She and her first husband John stayed married for a dozen or so years. But my sister found her true love with David, who grew up in the local town known for refurbished Victorian homes. They are a great match, and my sister is a happy woman.
For several years, David and my sister planned outings for groups of schoolchildren, and had the opportunity to arrange a visit to Washington, DC for the 2009 Presidential inauguration ceremony. Ticket arrangements were made through the offices of the California Senate. They arrived to the biting cold of January conditions in Washington without specific seating arrangements. Early on the day of the festivities, Sis called the Senate office to inquire about admissions. The representative said, “You are the only people who have asked nicely about tickets. Tell you what I’m going to do. I have a handful of tickets in the upper balcony, and I’m going to give them to you.”
The happy newlyweds stood with hundreds of thousands in the National Mall, while my niece and nephew were among a few lucky students to sit within a hundred feet of the ceremony, among some very influential Americans. Aretha Franklin was the only musical guest to perform at the inauguration. I love my sister, and wish she would let me back into her life. I have nothing but nice for decades, and receive almost nothing but derision in return. She is my primary link to the past.
1. That’s Joe South playing guitar on “Chain Of Fools”. Joe had two hit songs, “Games People Play” and “Walk A Mile In My Shoes”. Both songs suggest a well known philosophy to combat alcoholism. The alternate version of “Chain Of Fools” on the album Lady Soul is sensational, a must have version of one of Aretha’s greatest songs.
2. Speaking of “Chain Of Fools”, Aretha’s Saturday Night Live performance on March 12th, 1994, is also outstanding. A fourteen piece band, led by drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, blast through “Chains” in under three minutes, an explosion of powerful soul. Sometimes, the looks on the musician’s faces tell what is happening. They know it’s good, and they get the standing O they deserve.
3. I have included thirty songs, none recorded after 1974. She had a minor hit with “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” in 1976, but I prefer En Vogue’s 1992 version. She had several charting hits in the 1980s, but her early work with the Muscle Shoals and Atlantic rhythm sections seems superior, a early basic soul grooves and beats. Instead of more hit songs, I added a few cuts from Aretha Now, including Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”, the ending of which the sisters rework into a call and response passage that reminds strongly of Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)”.
4. My favorite back-to-back songs are songs #2 and #3 on Young Gifted And Black. Aretha is listed as composer of both “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady”. The two songs could not be more different and compelling. “Day Dreaming” features the great Franklin sisters rhapsodizing on love, while “Rock Steady” calls the song exactly what it is. I consider these her greatest artistic statements.
Aretha Franklin Songs:
Rock Steady, Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭✭
Chain Of Fools, Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭✭
Respect, Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭✭
Day Dreaming, Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭✭
Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do), Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭✭
Chain Of Fools (Alt), Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭
The Weight, Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭
I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭
Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭
Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business), Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭
Think, Aretha Franklin ✭✭✭
Baby I Love You, Aretha Franklin ✭✭
See Saw Aretha Franklin ✭✭
You Send Me, Aretha Franklin ✭✭
I Can’t See Myself Leaving You, Aretha Franklin ✭✭
Spanish Harlem, Aretha Franklin ✭✭
I Say A Little Prayer, Aretha Franklin ✭✭
Don’t Play That Song (You Lied), Aretha Franklin ✭✭
You’re All I Need To Get By, Aretha Franklin ✭✭
Rock Steady (Alt), Aretha Franklin ✭✭
I’ll Keep On Smiling, Aretha Franklin ✭✭
You’re Taking Another Man’s Place, Aretha Franklin ✭✭
(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone, Aretha Franklin ✭
Bridge Over Troubled Water, Aretha Franklin ✭
Ain’t No Way, Aretha Franklin ✭
Just Right Tonight, Aretha Franklin ✭
Lee Cross, Aretha Franklin ✭
Runnin’ Out Of Fools, Aretha Franklin ✭
The House That Jack Built, Aretha Franklin ✭
Maybe I’m A Fool, Aretha Franklin ✭
Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel ✭✭
Don’t Play That Song (You Lied), Ben E. King ✭
I Say A Little Prayer, Dionne Warwick ✭✭✭
Respect, Otis Redding ✭✭✭
Respect (Alt), Otis Redding ✭✭
Spanish Harlem, Ben E. King ✭✭✭
See Saw, Don Covay ✭
This Will Be (An Everlasting Love), Natalie Cole ✭✭
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Carole King ✭✭
You Send Me, Sam Cooke ✭✭✭✭
You’re All I Need To Get By, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell ✭✭✭
The Weight, The Band ✭✭✭✭✭