When I first heard it on the radio one day in 1968, it’s as if I were hearing the sky rip wide open.
All my hairs were tingling. Goosebumps.
“You better think, think, think about what you’re trying to do to me . . . ’’
What a voice! I’d never heard anything like it. It was a powerful, rollicking, grounded voice that grabbed my immediate attention and wouldn’t let go. It was an earthy voice filled with passion and conviction. A commanding voice with a kind of regal sass to it – a bit slyly taunting, scolding, somewhat mischievous, swooping from bold verbal warnings to its jubilant crescendo of “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom.” It was a voice of a strong, confident, no-nonsense woman who knew what she was singing about down to the bottom of her very soul. She sounded like she was laying down the law and no back-talk please.
It was, of course, the voice of Aretha Franklin, who died Aug. 16 at age 76.
Before the day that song struck me like lightning, I had somehow managed to miss Franklin’s earlier radio hits. I’d heard her name but did not know her works. “Think” remains my favorite of her many great songs, although “Respect,” “Chain of Fools” and “Natural Woman” are also top favorites.
Franklin was a powerhouse, a force of nature, a towering vocalist, a wonderful piano player and a key influence for the Civil Rights struggles of the mid- to late-1960s. At the age of 16, before she was widely known, she sang at Martin Luther King Jr. rallies before he became a household name. And later, on such a mournful day in April 1968, she sang an earth-shattering version of “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral after he was assassinated in Memphis, the city of Franklin’s birth.
She was also a force for social/cultural change, her powerful vocal performances underlining the Women’s Movement. Here was a woman who knew deep down what she was saying, what she was singing, and when Franklin sang with her confident, bold, no-nonsense voice, people stood at attention and listened. Here was a woman you didn’t want to mess with, a woman who didn’t indulge in sloganeering, and a woman with a voice that evoked “women’s liberation” far more powerfully than a crowd of bra-burners.
Franklin’s genius – besides the obvious magnificent gift of her voice – was her uncanny ability, like that of Elvis Presley, to blend musical forms: gospel, rhythm-and-blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll. She created a fresh-and-funky sound by synthesizing those musical forms, along with the jubilant congregation shouts heard in her girlhood at the New Bethel Baptist Church where her father C.L. Franklin was pastor.
Another sign of her genius is that every song she sang she made entirely her own, including – most notably – “Natural Woman” written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin; and “Respect’ written by Otis Redding. It is almost unthinkable that any other singer would be foolish enough to attempt those songs.
In my imagination, I keep seeing and hearing the immortal Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, shakin’ up the heavenly joint, leading a choir of other angels with that powerful voice, those soaring emotions and those commanding convictions.