ONCE THERE WERE GIANTS (Aretha Franklin, R.I.P.)

They grow fewer by the day…and have no heirs.

Others will say their piece and, where the terms of her importance to the world are addressed, I can’t imagine anything will be left unsaid.

I’ll stick to the personal.

The first album of hers that I owned is still my go-to.

She did other fine things before and after, but that decade (1967–1976) was really everything that mattered. Almost anything she did inside it was greater than almost anything she (or anyone) did outside it. Which is by way of saying I’m glad I got to it first–inĀ  a bargain bin somewhere, I don’t remember where, circa 1978.

The impact of those recordings was profound, as it has been for millions before and since, however and wherever they find them.

I had a habit in those days of sticking my head next to the turntable (the speakers were built in, cheap as they come, and, in these halcyon days of Bose and digital, I still kind of miss them) and singing along with everything. I had only been buying records for a couple of years and was still in the process of discovering that, while I was nothing special singing on my own, I was an inspired mimic.

I took it very seriously, tried to get everything just right in my own head (what you heard in your head, was your business–I knew what I sounded like!), because I saw (or heard) it as a means of linking into other souls–souls I imagined were bigger and bolder than mine, who had faced things I had yet to face, or perhaps never would face, trying to reach the world through me and me through the world, who could carry me to higher ground.

Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, you can get carried away….and carried a long way up the mountain in a very short time.

When I got hold of Ten Years of Gold, I already knew I could do Frankie Valli, Diana Ross, Donny Osmond, all five Beach Boys (no matter how fast they traded off) not to mention the easy stuff like Elton John and the Beatles.

We needn’t speak of Buddy Holly. I was note perfect from the beginning, but since I was his reincarnation (as I’ve stated before, I’m sure I’m not the only one), that hardly counted.

One thing I was queasy about was singing “girl” lyrics. I loved female voices–anyone who has followed along here knows how much I still do. And I sang with them.

But I had trouble making a particular leap.

Not timbre (heck, if you can do Diana Ross, that’s never going to be an issue–and, no, I don’t have a high speaking voice–quite the opposite–life’s full of mysteries).

The trouble was lyrics.

If one just skipped by–say Come on boy see about me, that was maybe okay.

And, of course, plenty of lyrics are gender (or was it sex?…I never can remember which is supposed to be which) neutral.

Aretha Franklin was the first singer I loved and listened to close who forced a choice.

She wasn’t a girl…and nothing (by which I mean nothing) just skipped by.

I fought it for a while. A month probably. Maybe a little longer.

Not forever.

Sooner or later, I was going to have to decide–do I keep changing the gender pronouns while I’m singing?

You know, the way I had been.

I might imitate some girl…But was I going to make the soul-shift take her perspective?

Then one day, I was singing along with Aretha (who I could do like nobody’s business–Sweet Inspirations too–go figure….I once knew all the words to a song I’d never heard before and have never been able to remember them since…life’s full of mysteries) and I realized something,

If I’m worrying about changing the lyrics, I’m not being carried away.

And if I wasn’t being carried away….what was the point?

So I did it.

I pretended, for a few minutes, to be a girl. Better yet, a woman.

And never thought about it again.

It didn’t turn me effeminate or gay or queer or whatever the word was supposed to be then, when I tried to keep up, or is supposed to be now when I hardly bother.

It didn’t threaten my sense of myself.

It didn’t make me stop liking girls.

It did what great music always did.

Made me bigger.

Better.

Helped me see further.

Took me to the Higher Ground.

After Aretha (who came right after Elvis and right before the Shangri-Las, all of whom came after Jesus), I never had to get a whole lot bigger, because there wasn’t that much bigger to get.

She forced me to change to a new self…and to start at the top.

For me, it was part of a Christian journey (which, unless you have taken it, is not remotely what you think it is, peace be upon you), to a place where we not only see ourselves as others see us, but we see others as they see themselves, with all the beauty and terror that implies.

I like to think the preacher’s daughter understood.

And in case you are wondering if the song that opened the world was the one you think it was, you can stop wondering.

It was the song you think it was.

Like I said, she made me start at the top.

it was many a long year before I discovered the lyrics had been written by a man. (And mea culpa and R.I.P. to Gerry Goffin, who somehow passed away in 2014 without my hearing about it. Time does both fly and march.)

What was it the poet said…Memory believes before knowing remembers?*

Yeah, that was it.

I think I might want to crank up the Bose tonight.

Might even have to get the turntable out.

*William Faulkner, for those wondering.

4 thoughts on “ONCE THERE WERE GIANTS (Aretha Franklin, R.I.P.)

  1. Goodbye, Lady Soul. What a legacy. Talk about knocking it out of the park.
    We music types can’t lose touch with the Real Deals who helped to invent the styles in which we play.

    How to move the president and, more significantly, Carole King to tears:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8wOvR8mC9Q

    (Take the time to watch — or, more to the point, listen to — the whole thing. She was 73 at the time, by the way.)

    • I watched this at a friend’s house not long after it aired (I think she had taped it, or whatever it is you do to preserve a copy these days)…I missed the beginning and, while we were knocked out by it, we couldn’t figure out why Aretha was singing at her own tribute…took me until the next day to realize it was a Carole King tribute!….But you are right, an amazing night and, we can now say, in essence, the capstone of her mighty career…The black preacher’s daughter ends by singing a song two Jewish kids from Brooklyn wrote for her….for the president of the United States. And HE’s the one who is honored…it doesn’t get any better or more American than that.

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