I received news over social media that Aretha Franklin was in hospice care a little over a week ago. The new was frankly stunning. For one, I didn’t know she was ill. It wasn’t as if she was keeping a low profile over the last few years. She had actively toured within recent memory. I would never have guessed she was in ill health.
When she did pass away a few days after the news of her being in hospice broke out, it turns out she had pancreatic cancer. I don’t know how long she had it, but it must’ve developed rapidly. I wasn’t just stunned by the suddenness of such an announcement. I was a fan of Aretha’s music and the impact she had on soul/R&B, pop, and female performers that came after her inspired by her talent, character, and attitude.
Aretha’s music had always been with me. By the time I was born, her career had gone through so many changes. The hits we all know were so ingrained in popular culture that they were presented as wallpaper music in most contexts; a score over a popular movie or playing over tinny grocery store speakers. We all knew the hits because they were part of the lexicon of American popular music. You didn’t seek them out. They were already there surrounding you.
During the second semester of my freshman year of college, I started my own genre-specific show at my college radio station. That station was unique. We were a completely student-driven station, all volunteer, live 24/7, and with specific programming guidelines. Many college radio stations had one or a combination of those qualities, but very few did all that. However, from 10 PM to midnight every night, a specialty show got to go off-format and do their own thing. It was a privilege to have a specialty show; two hours where you call the shots. These slots were given to volunteers who applied with well-defined ideas and who had proven they were responsible. My show was called “Soul Food.”
I had always loved soul music and “Soul Food” was going to reflect that. However, just turning 19 and still within my first year, I still had a lot to learn about the genre. The first year or two of the show were rocky due to its predictability and lack of a unique voice. This was because I played a lot of soul/R&B standards with a few deep cuts from those artists sprinkled throughout. I would often get jokes about the music I played. I didn’t mind because I liked that music, but I was still finding my voice.
As time went on and I continued to develop “Soul Food,” I was making musical discoveries all the time. Through Internet research, outreach to independent labels, conversations with the local record store owner, and reading through specialty trade magazines, I was able to find new, independent, and never-heard-before artists that would give my show a unique sound that wouldn’t have been heard anywhere else in town and probably the state as well.
This drive was how I discovered artists like Sharon Jones, revivalist labels like Numero Group, and so much more. I couldn’t believe in what I was hearing. Whether it was recently recorded music or reissues of material long forgotten or never heard, there was a market for a specific type of soul music that wasn’t the pop you heard on Top 40 at the time.
I was met with skepticism and incredulousness by my fellow college radio DJs when I talked about all this great music. I was often told that soul music was no longer relevant. Nevermind that Amy Winehouse was making big waves and Duffy and Adele were right around the corner, I was often dismissed and that no one cared about soul music. Under the direction of an out-of-touch station manager, our station became more focused on playing obscure artists inspired by barely recognizable synthpop one-hit wonders of the 1980s. I knew soul was still alive. I tried in vain to get our station to book Sharon Jones for events before she got too big. They didn’t think that would ever happened.
Before my discovery of all this, my knowledge and love for soul music was rather stagnant. I knew the hits. However, finding that niche that Sharon Jones and Numero Group were filling, it added fuel to the fire. I think a big part of why was because they sounded like direct descendants of what Aretha pioneered. I knew her work and now I was learning what people today were doing with it. To me, this wasn’t wallpaper music. This was life.
I have now come to realize that I just wasn’t in the right place to have my interests and passion encouraged. I wasn’t surrounded by the right people. It took me a long time and moving to a new city to find a group of people who are open to new music, new ideas, and approach the musical landscape with an open, and somewhat, academic mindset.
When Aretha passed away, I didn’t’ immediately listen to her music. I went to the stuff that was inspired by her; the music I had discovered during my college radio days. I didn’t realize exactly why until a few days later. It was because there was no one doing what Aretha did before that. Before Aretha, there were no women of color that could match the critical and commercial success of Aretha. Certainly, many of these women were extremely talented but unfortunately were not recognized. Aretha changed all of that and set a standard that is still being followed five decades later.
Listening to Aretha also opened the doors to gospel for me. Admittedly, gospel isn’t an area I know that much about. I am ware of key figures and do listen to some on occasion. However, as compared with my knowledge and love of soul, my knowledge of gospel is lacking.
That’s why, when I was diving into my soul records and anything having to do with Aretha, I was pleased with Sound Opinion’s tribute episode to Aretha. Jim and Greg talked about her early days at Columbia, the success she had at Atlantic, and highlight from her career since then. However, they talked very extensively about one particular gospel record.
Amazing Grace was a 1972 live gospel album by Aretha and became her biggest-selling album to date. Recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, it is a testament to Aretha’s massive talent. Sure, you may have known she was talented because her most famous singles illustrate that, but they cannot match the quality of exceptionalism captured live for Amazing Grace.
I listened to the album a few times over the weekend and I am amazed by its energy and passion. Every track breathes life. Rumor has it that Mick Jagger was in the audience and the album inspired the sound of Exile on Main Street. It is gritty, sweaty, and unapologetically full of life. While many of these tracks are remarkable, I wanted to highlight her rendition of the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.” With a run-time of nearly 11 minutes, this track represents Aretha in pure form. This is Aretha will no filter and nobody stopping her as she exposes her true essence in a way very few artists can.
The performance was recorded by Sydney Pollack for a concert film he planned to direct. Originally scheduled for released in 1972, the film could not be completed due to sound synchronization issues. It was the shelved for 38 years until producer Alan Elliott resolved the sound issue. The goal was to premiere the film in 2011, until Aretha sued to not have the film screened citing rights over her likeness being used. Aretha stated “Justice, respect and what is right prevailed and one’s right to own their own self-image.” Despite the fact the original contract stated her likeness could be used, Aretha secured an emergency injunction.
This story thrills me. This is Aretha exhibiting full control and power over herself and is indicative of the way she has managed her career; no one tells Aretha how to do Aretha but Aretha. As much as I would love to see this footage, it likely doesn’t do the original album justice. I’d rather have that and leave the rest to my own mind and imagination.