On this Earth, our job is to spread the light and the goodness. To communicate and to listen in turn, to be there. To share. Because what’s more fun than to say to friends and family, complete strangers even, Hey, here’s something great, I think you might like this.
It might even change your life.
Growing up on AM radio, we all knew Aretha Franklin. Her greatest hits at least. If your parents were partial to R&B, Soul or Gospel, you might know a bit more about her music. But my Mom leaned toward rock-pop – Janis Joplin, Neil Diamond and Elton John – and so my knowledge of Aretha was pretty shallow. Until college. It was senior year and I was sharing an apartment with my best friend, Christie. 30 Greatest Hits by Aretha Franklin was a two-CD collection of all that is amazing, and it was one of Christie’s favorite late-night listens. An old boyfriend, Adam, had introduced her to it, and now she was passing on to me the message of Aretha’s wonder.
There were Saturday nights, after dinner, a live band, maybe a few too many drinks, when we’d come home late, still wired, and stretch out on the floor of our small living room. We needed some music to help us wind down. Mellow, ethereal tunes – Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Summertime Rolls’ segueing to Journey’s ‘Lights’ and then, more often than not, to the entire Disc Two of Aretha’s 30 Greatest Hits: ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’, ‘Day Dreaming’, ‘Wholly Holy’…
By now we were half-asleep, with Aretha’s voice calling, attesting and wafting over us. We were no more than dozy kids in church. But she was the message.
In my ‘20s and out in the world (pre-Spotify), I once spent several weekends scouring the record shops of Hong Kong for a copy of the Sparkle soundtrack. Aretha as produced by Curtis Mayfield. What a joy to find it. I was obsessed with ‘Something He Can Feel’, I can’t explain why. I was single, dating, finding my way. Maybe, again, I needed her message. As with so many of her songs – ‘Baby I Love You’ is another – Aretha taught me that a woman can be strong and still sexy for her man.
She’s there when you’re up (‘Respect’, ‘I Knew You Were Waiting’, ‘Think’) and she’s there, like no other singer I know, when you’re down. Aretha Sings The Blues, an obscure 1985 compilation (that’s not available on Spotify), got me through a lot of heartbreak many moons ago. The opening song – ‘Drinking Again’ – begins with an almost defiant Aretha calling out “I’mmmm…” before she drops down to a broken confession, “…drinking again”. Then a plaintive trumpet comes in, only underscoring how lonely she feels. By song’s end, she’s wrenched, drained and left with nothing but “a bottle of Seagram’s and just a memory.”
The 14 songs of Aretha Sings The Blues, many of which are covers of Dinah Washington tunes, are as epic and emotional as the greatest of novels, as vivid and immediate as a classic film. In song, she captures the fullest expression of the human condition. It’s a message of strength mixed with the courage to be vulnerable and the overriding blessing of her compassion and grace.
There is so much of Aretha to discover and enjoy. Gospel, jazz, soul, R&B across 40+ studio albums. Over 60 years of recording and performing. And countless amazing appearances that are available to us online, and that, as President Obama discovered, will move you to tears.
If you want to discover or re-discover Aretha Franklin for yourself, allow me to share and recommend you start with the orange cover and 30 Greatest Hits.
It is my great pleasure to spread the gospel of Aretha.
Thanks for reading x