By “Doctuh” Michael Woods, Professor of Music, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY
When I was 18 years old I graduated from high school. My buddy and I played in a cover band that did Motown tunes. In the summers we would jam in the late mornings at my house or at the guitar player’s house. One morning I came running down to his front porch. I had just got a letter from Aretha Franklin.!!!! I had written to her several times telling her how awesome I thought her voice was. I always played my bass with a new sense of purpose after that day. She was my hero rivaled only by James Brown.
Now that the Queen of Soul has passed, we need to take a look at what Soul Music ought to be. Soul ought to be about producing sounds that are expensive because those sounds cost somebody a lived experience to create. With Soul Music, one does not just take a given beat and have it repeat 35 times without variation in tempo, or volume, or style, and by a machine that does not laugh, cry or dance.
A robot does not bring the funk like a Black drummer from the hood; Plus the brother needs the gig! The very nature of Soul Music is to exalt the subjective qualities of the music over the objective aspects. Soul is about how an experience or its musical equivalent makes you feel. As a Black teenager, the sound of Aretha’s voice always filled me with hope. Our politicians today would do well to listen to Black singers and try to spot the sound of hope and then legislate to it.
Jesse Jackson knew that it is much easier to keep hope alive than to let it die and try to force it back to life. If you can spot it in the sounds that people make you can be certain that it is quite alive. Even when Aretha sang songs that seemed sad, the very color of her voice as well as that heavy, thick tone that lagged so far behind the beat, filled me with energy and courage to face whatever the challenge was.
When I heard Aretha sing no one had to try to convince me that Black life mattered. I knew it mattered because no one else in all of American could riff like that. When you go to see a famous opera singer, you get there early and read the extensive program notes that tell all of the complex roles that she has played.
When Aretha opens her mouth and sings the first note, her tone color becomes her program notes. You can not create the sounds that she does without having lived through some tough times.
John Hammond as her manager tried to turn her into another Billie Holiday. She was quite capable of singing Jazz with very beautiful shadings. She could also fly over the notes like she did when she sang “Moody’s Mood For Love” in which she sings the words to an awesome alto sax solo.
But when she went down and recorded at Muscle Shoals Alabama, they finally let her turn on the power and she developed the sound of one of the most haunting and compelling African American cries in all of popular music. Now it is such that almost anyone in the world can identify the sound of Aretha’s voice in seven notes or less!!!
This can not be said about several of the cookie-cutter artists that are out now.
The colorful metaphors that she employed when she sang, “Oh Me Oh My” are just classic. When she sings “Skylark” it is a story about a young beautiful Black woman searching for love. She is asking a bird to fly up and look over the scene and see if it can help her find her lover. The shape and subtlety of the phrasing is magnificent!
When she does “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, it is as if a Black female mother figure is reaching out a hand to me as I sink. That hand has a sure grip and it pulls me to safety.
When she sings “Eleanor Rigby” the woman transforms from an obscure British woman into a little old Black lady with a handbag that is way too large and thick unattractive stockings that attends a small almost forgotten AME Zion church outside of Detroit.
The power and tone color of her voice alone makes the difference. When she sang “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” she broke through on two levels at the same time. The song was a female anthem for self-empowerment. At the same time, it was one of the first songs where a woman could say “Gimme my proppers when I get home.” In other words “I need my vitamin “S” also, don’t come home drunk or tired!!
What does Aretha snack on? Grammy Crackers!!! She has won so many awards that it is off of the scale!!! Even the governor of Michigan once declared her voice a natural resource!
Aretha and Sam Cooke were the first two major popular artists who survived the transition from church to R&B. At that time most Black church people were so conservative that they felt that if you were going to sing gospel you had to do that and only that. I am glad that we expanded our understanding of her world-class voice and allowed her to create a body of work in multiple styles.
To me, her voice is so spirited that every note she sings is spiritual even if it is not aimed at Sunday morning at 11 am. She has sung to honor Obama, the Pope as well as Mandela, but it is the average man that goes to work every day and tries to make a decent living that she truly represents.
It is my sincere hope that Aretha’s death will make a final contribution: A clarion call for our greatest singers of all ethnic backgrounds to make statements of dignity and sing songs of love and not just sex.
The next time you visit a Black church like the ones her father used to pastor, linger at the altar for a moment after service when the once rockin’ church has fallen back into silence, just before the janitor locks the front door. Quiet your self and see if you can pick up a faint soulful riff of Aretha when she was yet a teenager singing “While the Blood Is Runnin’ Warm In Yo Veins” floating on the air.
The greatest R&B voice in the history of American music has passed into another realm!!! But that much Soul has to leave a residue. I do not know who her mantle should pass to or do we just let her magnificent soul rest and start fresh by creating new categories because Aretha’s can not even be touched?
A tribute from “Doctuh” Michael Woods, Professor of Music, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY