My uncle, a mentor, had been murdered the day before and I was still stunned, but the waves of emotion were beginning to boil up and seep through in that state of shock when I finally went to see Aretha Franklin perform for the first time, in 2009. My wife and I had gotten tickets well in advance, obviously. In fact, they were amazing seats in the orchestra, just a few yards from where the Queen of Soul was to stand or sit at the piano. We decided to go to the show. In fact, I needed to.
Clearly I was vulnerable. All Aretha had to do was appear before me and I knew I would turn to a puddle. If she put on a medium show, which was all I expected, it would be a catharsis.
Aretha was on fire. She seemed fully inspired that night and I was leveled and reborn. I was, if not healed, set back on my way. As I wrote the next day, “I really, really needed even just a mediocre night from Aretha. Just give me ‘Ain’t No Way,’ please, Ms. Franklin. She gave us way more … I didn’t expect Aretha to be so good. She was unreal. She played tons of soulful vamps and gospel numbers, torch ballads. I was in heaven. She started to heal me. She opened the night with one of my uncle Vince’s favorite songs, Jackie Wilson’s ‘Higher and Higher.’ I remember him driving me around Miami with the song on repeat. It was too uncanny. Aretha helped bring me through.”
She sang “Ain’t No Way,” my favorite Aretha song. It starts like most of those classic sessions she cut at Muscle Shoals, unhurried, with her at the piano, building in emotion. She crests at around 3:05, hitting some high pure notes before the arrangement comes back to earth into a sort of bolero staccato rhythm, like a plane skidding to a slow landing on a runway. She wrote this song with her sister, Carolyn. In an invaluable cultural artifact, we can see video of them as they composed and arranged it.
Aretha only had to sing a note. Didn’t matter the song. In the car after the news today, I just hit “Aretha Franklin” on shuffle and “Say a Little Prayer” came first. This is a great song. But as soon as Aretha starts singing, she elevated the song to high art, her voice expressing the ineffable. The old cliché that she could sing the phone book was not an exaggeration. Comedy skit shows missed an opportunity. They should have had Aretha sing three random entries from a phone book and I bet she would kill it. It would be shared in perpetuity, like Marvin singing the anthem or Aretha’s own legendary last-minute stand-in for Pavarotti. She owned every song she sang, as legend has it, after hearing her take on “Respect,” Otis Redding sighed, “That girl stole that song away from me.”
Artetha’s brilliant moments are well-documented. I will just add one more of my favorites. I also once wrote about listening to her seminal gospel record, Amazing Grace. Here it is:
I was walking into work and “Precious Memories” came on my iPod. This is the version that Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland sing on the 1972 live album, Amazing Grace. The recording always almost brings me to my knees, specifically around 3:25 minutes in. This is the first of two climaxes on the recording when I feel privileged that was someone — Jerry Wexler is the producer, of course — was there to record the holy moment. Because that is exactly what it is. Aretha seems to be channeling the Holy Spirit here. Without exaggeration, every time I listen to this, every time, whether it be the first time in months that I am listening to it or the fourth time in a row, I am physically affected. It goes beyond shivers down the spine; it is an overwhelming experience, emotional and physical, that I can barely contain. I could only imagine what sort of freakin’ weirdo I look like walking down a bike path with my face all contorted with anguished emotion.
“Precious Memories” is a traditional that gets to the heart of it, as Van Morrison sings in his own rhapsodic moments. Over a sublimely gentle ¾ pace, Aretha hums low in a call-and-answer with the Southern California Community Choir starts the lyric:
Precious memories, how they linger
How they ever flood my soul
And the soul of the listener starts to flood as Aretha adds a wordless riff.
In the stillness of the midnight
Sacred secrets will unfold.
And this is the whole thing: the sacred secrets are unfolding just as the arrangement does. The gathered live congregation of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles are all aware that this calm is fleeting; the ecstasy is building. Aretha, off microphone, cues Cleveland with the first line of the next verse, “In sad hours,” and the rich husky baritone of Cleveland picks it up:
In sad hours (Aretha: Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord)
When I get a little lonely (yeah, yeah, yeah)
The truth, the real truth, the real truth of Jesus’ (thank you, Lord) (Aretha: say it, James) Love is told, oh yeah oh yes it is
The congregation and the choir are now clapping on the 2 and 3 of the waltz beat. It is building. And then it hits.
Mmmm, Jesus (they repeat His name 6 times between them) whispers
(The choir hits with a loud “yeahhhh,” which Aretha picks up’
“Yeaaaaaahhhhh I’ll be with you.” (Cleveland exclaims off mic, “SAY IT!” which sounds like he slammed his finger in a car door — the agony offset by the ecstasy.)
And the arrangement stars to wind down from this first climax, only to have Aretha sing, “You know he will. We oughta sing that one more time, James.”
And they bring it back to a seemingly impossible second crescendo. “Every, every, every, every now and then you’re gonna get a little lonely.” And now Aretha just tosses words out the door and it is pure singing, one “Jesus” is all she says riffs to “Child, I’ll be. With. A’you,” pausing rhythmically between those words.
And the arrangement simmers down, the choir and congregation, who have witnessed similar moments, nevertheless sound as stunned to semi-silence as we feel as listeners. Where they were shouting, beseeching, spurring, praising, clapping, singing along during the song, by the end, they sound drained, offering relatively modest applause that comes nowhere near appropriate for what might be one of the greatest soul-unloading, cathartic performances captured on record.
You can hear why every rock & roll and pop star poser like Michael Bolton and Celine Dion haul out a gospel choir for some TV appearance or another; the power of a great gospel choir is undeniable. What such performers miss, however, is the force and depth of Aretha and James Cleveland, a force and depth to match that of a choir, to stand to-to-toe with and compliment a choir. Aretha’s recording here builds an arrangement that is like the architecture of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. At the start, the choir’s voice lift like arches up to the heavens, Aretha weaves her voice in and the choir dips. The, rhythm encourages the stop-start gait associated with a slow-moving ceremonial procession toward the front of the church, the altar. This holy music, like the great architecture, aspires to capture the spirit, the very essence – not the specifics – of the faith of the participants. They could be singing about Krishna, Jesus, or Allah, it doesn’t matter. What they are communicating is the passion in their souls.
It’s enough to make you want to go to church.