Celebrating The Queen Of Soul

I was terribly saddened by the news today of the death of Aretha Franklin, at age 76.  I’ve written before of my thoughts on this titanic talent, who had a voice that comes once in a generation.  It’s a terrible loss for American music, and for America generally.

I remember listening to Aretha Franklin on the radio when I was a kid, and in fact the very first record I ever bought — a 45, for those old enough to remember such a thing — was an Aretha Franklin record.  Back in those days the popular music stations were a lot more inclusive, and on the AM dial you could hear the Beatles, followed by an Aretha tune, followed by Cream or Crosby, Stills & Nash, or one of the many one-hit wonders of the ’60s, and then the Temptations or the Four Tops.  Unlike today, music wasn’t stratified and packaged into heavy metal stations or hip-hop stations — AM radio played it all.  And once you heard an Aretha Franklin song, even on a scratchy AM radio, you inevitably became an Aretha Franklin fan.  Her voice was just so great, and warm, and her presence was just so powerful, that you couldn’t resist it.

Many people associate Aretha Franklin with R-E-S-P-E-C-T, or Chain of Fools, but I think my favorite song is Baby, I Love You,  I’ve linked to a bad video quality YouTube clip of that song below, but who really cares about the video quality when you’re talking about Aretha Franklin?  It was her voice and her humanity that was transcendent.

And, speaking now as a 61-year-old, I think death at 76 came much too young.

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The Queen Of Soul Drops The Mike

Aretha Franklin has told a Detroit TV station that she plans to “retire” this year, after a new album is released.  It’s not entirely clear what her retirement will mean, practically, because she says she’ll still be available to perform now and then.  Basically, she wants to spend time with her grandchildren before they head off to college.

I hope the Queen of Soul doesn’t fully drop the mike, because she’s simply irreplaceable.  Of all the great female R&B and soul singers of the ’60s and ’70s — and there were a lot of them — Aretha Franklin was without peer.  Once she sang a song she made it her own, and there was just something about the tone, and timbre, of her voice that could reach into your chest and grab your heart.  Listen to any of her great recordings from the ’60s and you’ll be amazed at how fresh and stunning they still sound, 50 years later.  I’ve provided two vintage videos, one from the ’60s and another from the ’70s, that I think make the point.

I hope Aretha Franklin gets to spend that time with her grandkids, but I also hope she’ll continue to give some of her time to the rest of us.

Norah Jones

America has enjoyed many blessings.  Two of the more obvious ones are extraordinary national parks and exceptional women singers.

On the latter category:  if you haven’t already done so, give a listen to the Norah Jones CD The Fall.  Sure, I know it’s been out there for a while.  So has Zion National Park.  That doesn’t make it any less amazing.

You could spend days talking about incredible female voices in American music.  Judy Garland.  Rosemary Clooney.  Aretha Franklin.  Patsy Cline.  Janis Joplin.  Linda Ronstadt. Gladys Knight.

In The Fall, Norah Jones holds her own with this impossible competition.  Her smoky voice, with its deliberate pace and terrific lower register, adds an incredible depth to her songs.  Listen to I Wouldn’t Need You and December if you don’t believe me.

Friday night, after a great night out catching up with old friends and a few cold Blue Moon Beligian Wheats, is just about the perfect time to listen to Norah Jones.

Drinking A Blue Moon, Listening To Aretha

It’s probably declasse to admit this, but I’m drinking a Blue Moon as I listen to Aretha Franklin’s RESPECT.  UJ was here, we ate some pizza, and now I am enjoying a chilled adult beverage and, perhaps, the greatest voice in the history of American popular music.

IMG_1141What, exactly, is wheat beer, and why didn’t it seemingly exist 20 years ago?  Why does it have a fresh, clean, almost fruity taste that is such a nice contrast to a Budweiser?  And, much more importantly, how did Aretha Franklin dig so deep and find the voice that you hear in RESPECT?   It is awesome.

And, as even more of a testament to the fast-moving modern culture, how did wheat beer go from being newly discovered to being the purported beer of a poser so quickly?  It is one of life’s great mysteries.

I don’t care.  As Saturday night percolates, I still like the taste of Blue Moon Ale.

American artists, British bands

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

There are eight Americans and two Brits in the top ten of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash

(not a definitive list, but useful for illustrating my point). What’s strange is that all the Americans entries are individuals, while the British entries are for bands. Going down the list, it’s pretty much the same, with a few exceptions. Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison for the Americans, the Clash and the Who for the British.

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

Elvis

Elvis

It’s not a fluke. Anyone who’s listened to pop music from the past fifty years has probably noticed that America’s best contributions come in the forms of individuals, while British ones come in the form of bands. None of the “best American bands” we’ve discussed so far are as influential, in my opinion, as Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Many of America’s best bands have been dominated by a single member – Nirvana by Kurt Cobain, the Beach Boys by Brian Wilson, the Doors by Jim Morrison – while Britain’s best bands traditionally derive their brilliance from collaboration (or compromise) – the Beatles from Lennon and McCartney, the Rolling Stones from Jagger and Richards, etc.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The “American artists, British bands” rule applies too consistently to be dismissed as coincidence. Why is it this way?

Maybe it has something to do with America’s culture of individualism. The republican ideal of a man free to work to improve his own life has, perhaps, helped create the image of the American singer-songwriter

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

who blazes his own path through music. This explanation strikes me as too idealistic, however.

Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen

It could have something to do with America’s celebrity culture. Americans love creating personas for public figures. Maybe individual artists, with songs reflecting their own personality and values, resonate more with the American people. With more popularity, they are more likely to have successful careers that allow them more creativity. In fact, nearly all the great American musicians have personas like this. Sinatra was classy, Elvis wild but respectful, Springsteen working-class, Madonna sexual, etc. We even give them nicknames like “the Boss” and “the King.”

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

Prince

Prince

Another likely explanation is that, for whatever reason, America started a tradition of successful singer-songwriters that musicians imitated throughout the years. The great musicians whose pictures are in this post might have been following the model set by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, jazz greats like Miles Davis, or country legends like Woody Guthrie. In Britain, aspiring musicians would be more likely to follow the example of their country’s legends, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Jay-Z

Jay-Z

In the past thirty years rap has dominated American popular music. More than any other genre, rap is all about individualism. I wonder if this is continuing the same tradition. After all, rappers do tend to have well-known personas (usually involving a huge ego).

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake