(Update: Aretha passed this morning, August 16th.)
As I write this post [on August 15], Aretha Franklin is still with us, and maybe she’ll be with us for a while yet. The fact that she’s receiving hospice care, as was reported this week, doesn’t necessarily mean she’s going to die within days. I lost an uncle recently who had received hospice care for a couple of months.
When her time comes, other people are going to write about Aretha, and I look forward to those tributes. In this post, premature though it is, I’ll do what I can.
Although “Don’t Play That Song” peaked at #11 on the Hot 100 in the fabled fall of 1970, WLS didn’t chart it, so I didn’t hear it then. My introduction to Aretha came in the spring of 1971, when her glorious version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” went to #6 on the Hot 100 and #11 on WLS. My favorite Aretha record was a few months away. Forty-seven years ago this week, “Spanish Harlem” was blasting up the Hot 100, jumping from #29 to #19 in its third week on, although it was already #1 on soul station WWRL in New York City and at CKLW in Detroit. In September, it would peak at #2 on the Hot 100 where, in one of the great miscarriages of Top 40 justice, it got stuck behind Donny Osmond’s “Go Away Little Girl,” although it did reach #1 at WLS in Chicago and WABC in New York.
Aretha followed “Spanish Harlem” with “Rock Steady,” hot enough by itself, but positively smokin’ as processed for AM radio here, and in the spring of 1972, “Day Dreaming,” which is soul music as the pure, clear water of life—you could live on it for weeks if need be, with a shot of “Until You Come Back to Me” (1973) as a chaser. Although “I’m in Love” (1974), “Something He Can Feel” (1976), and “Jump to It” (1981) were significant hits, “Day Dreaming” would be Aretha’s last Top-10 single until “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” in 1985.
When I went to the record books, I was a bit surprised to find that Aretha hit #1 on the pop chart only twice, with “Respect” in 1967 and “I Knew You Were Waiting” with George Michael 20 years later. “Chain of Fools” and “Spanish Harlem” both made #2; “Until You Come Back to Me” and “Freeway of Love” each peaked at #3. In 1967, the album I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You, which started with the famously aborted recording session at Muscle Shoals, made #2. In 1968, Aretha: Lady Soul made #2 and Aretha Now made #3. Her scorecard: 17 Top-10 pop singles and six Top-10 albums.
(Links in the previous paragraph go to posts at The ’68 Comeback Special, a blog by Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South. Go read them, and the book too.)
Aretha had two babies before she turned 15, troubled relationships with difficult men, financial problems, concert no-shows, and rivalries with family members and fellow performers. Her career cratered a couple of times, but she always managed to come back. The 2014 biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz is the definitive telling of her story, although Aretha called it “trashy,” and she accused Ritz, collaborator on her 1999 autobiography, of being “vindictive.” Ritz says that because certain subjects were off-limits in 1999, that book failed to tell Aretha’s story as it should have. Respect addressed those subjects, with the cooperation of three Franklin family members. It’s not flattering and it’s hard to read in spots, but it also gives Aretha her due as an artist. And at the end of an artist’s life, the art is the thing that matters, because the art is what will endure.
The greatest art has a natural quality that makes it seem as though it sprung forth, like a redwood tree or a glacier does, willed into being by something primal and more powerful than than the conscious choices and actions of fallible human beings. Humans like Aretha Franklin make art that proves humanity can achieve the highest heights to which we aspire. We aren’t here just to suck up natural resources and die wanting more. We can do better.