Death has no ears. A journalist wrote that more than 100 years ago, on the passing of a beloved Spanish guitarist named Francisco Tárrega. Only a force incapable of hearing, the writer claimed, could ever erase such music from the world.
When Aretha Louise Franklin died Thursday morning, at the too-young age of 76, we could once again wonder if death had ears, or was so cruel, or so insensitive, to rob the world of such a stirring siren of song. But unlike the people of Spain, who in 1909 had little beyond their memories of Tárrega to bring them comfort, we have records and tapes and CDs and downloads and seemingly endless video to keep the Queen of Soul on her posthumous throne, certainly until we all meet our Maker.
In that way, we are blessed to live at this time. And in that way, Aretha Franklin lives forever. The outpouring of admiration since her death from pancreatic cancer has been startling, even knowing how good and popular she was. It’s as if the whole world had a thank-you card in its drawer that it forgot to mail, and suddenly, all those cards are being posted.
The days to come will see even more, as preparations are made for her Aug. 31 funeral. She will lie in state for two full days at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, a day longer than President Kennedy lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda.
Then again, she was a diva, and would not bristle at your suggestion of it. The mink coats, the fur hats, the blunt statements (“I’m comfortable in my own skin, and my 6-inch heels” she once told the Free Press) reflected the confidence with which she performed and lived.
And yes, some who worked for her, who extended her credit, who lived near her or knew her through business dealings, may today be biting their lips out of respect for the deceased. To deny that is to put your head in the sand. But that is what we do when a great talent dies, and it is not such a bad thing, to be kind, even if it irks you.
Besides, it is hard to argue with her sense of entitlement. Imagine growing up with that gift. Aretha didn’t get her voice by outworking everyone. She didn’t apprentice for 20 years to have it bestowed. She was thunderstruck from birth and she released that musical power as a child in church. What must a young Aretha have thought when she first heard her incredibly elastic voice vibrate through her vocal cords? “Wow? Did I do that?”
Who wouldn’t be impressed?
‘Never Grow Old’
So much has been written already about Franklin, her upbringing, her string of No. 1 hits, her critical adoration, her worldwide fandom, her civil rights dedication, her somewhat messy private life and her efforts to keep it private, that by this point, there is little new to reveal in any newspaper column.
But the appreciation of her gift can never reach capacity, and so I will try here, as a former musician who could only dream of a raindrop of Aretha Franklin’s talent, to illustrate what made her a singer’s singer, a voice for the ages, and a musical rarity.
To do this, I’ve chosen just four songs. They are varied enough, gaping in their distance from each other, to hint at the breadth of Aretha Franklin’s skill set.
The first goes back to her childhood here in Detroit, a little-known selection from her recording debut. It’s an album called “Songs of Faith,” recorded live inside the New Bethel Baptist Church when Aretha was 14.
Franklin’s father, C. L. Franklin, was the pastor there.
“He was one of the greatest Baptist preachers in America,” said Judge Damon Keith, who was a friend and mentor to Aretha most of her life. “Ask anyone in the African American community about his ‘Eagle Stirs Her Nest’ sermon. They all know it.”
In that sermon, which he begins by singing, Franklin likened God to the mother eagle stirring her young, taking them on her back, teaching them to fly yet being there if they fall.
But a regal bird stirring the nest could also describe young Aretha on this album. To hear her sing at 14 is to witness a talent with its shelves so fully stocked, there is nothing she doesn’t have, no note she can’t reach or hold.
Listen to Aretha, already a mother at this point, belt out the gospel hymn “Never Grow Old.” You hear a skill already wise beyond its years. Unhurried, emotional, punctuated by a longing you can’t imagine in a junior high-schooler.
“I have heard of a land
on the fairway strand
This beautiful home of the soul
Built by Jesus on high
where we never shall die
It’s a land where we’ll never grow old”
When she gets to the end, young Aretha goes off, singing the word “old” multiple times, as the congregation responds. She reels back and fires, like a pitcher unfurling one blazing fastball after another.
The congregation confirms!
“Never, NEVER grow old!”
It is the singing of a supreme talent who has already absorbed the traditions of her people and her faith, as confident as that mother bird that her voice will fly on its own. Stunning.
The second choice is Aretha singing “Misty” in 1965, when she was just 23 years old. She was recording for Columbia, signed there by the legendary John Hammond, the man who discovered Billie Holiday, and he must have felt that he found a second coming in Franklin.
Aretha was strictly a jazz singer then, a part of her career often overlooked by fans of “Respect” and “Think” and “I Say A Little Prayer” and “I Knew You Were Waiting.”
I chose “Misty” because everybody — everybody — who has ever played a lounge gig in any hotel lobby, or a wedding, or a 50th anniversary party, has played “Misty.” It may be the most stereotypical standard ever.
Which is what makes Aretha’s version so incredible. Recorded in a studio and overdubbed with the sound of a live audience (don’t ask), this is originality personified. From her first languid “oooh,” which she hangs onto, until the familiar opening line “Look at me” — which she breaks in half, first a nearly whispered “Look” then, “Just look at,” then finally “me” — you barely recognize this song, yet you feel its beauty. She sings behind the beat (and the chords) throughout the performance (as a piano player myself, I can only imagine the concentration it took the band to follow her). But to play with Aretha was an honor you had to earn. She wasn’t catering to you; you had to keep up.
By the time she reaches the lyric, “was it the sound of your hello, dear, that music I hear, I get misty, the moment you’re near” — well, you know you are hearing a version of this oh-so-familiar song that is oh-so-unfamiliar, and could never be done twice.
Listen to it. It’s remarkable. That it comes when Aretha was so young is continued evidence of a woman musically beyond her time.
The third song is one of her biggest hits, and her signature tune. “Respect.” It is notable for so many reasons, the first being it was someone else’s song before it was Aretha’s. Otis Redding wrote it, and he recorded it two years before she did. In the Redding version, it’s the plea of a hardworking man coming home and seeking some basic respect from his woman. It was a hit for Redding, and it’s a good record.
But when Aretha got hold of it, everything changed. It’s hardly the first time. Many of Franklin’s hits were written by others, even recorded by others. But just as designers long for actresses to wear their dresses at the Oscars, most songwriters pined for Aretha to take one of their tunes and make it her own.
Redding himself admitted that “Respect” was never his once Aretha recorded it. But it didn’t stay hers for long either. It was adopted by forces in the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and ultimately by any underappreciated community. Some of that is owed to the famous break added to the song:
find out what it means to me
That is followed by the signature “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me…” sung by Aretha’s sisters, Carolyn and Erma, which was Aretha and Carolyn’s idea. Remember, this was before “Sock it to me” became a national phrase and a “Laugh-In” staple. So Aretha not only created an historic song of empowerment, but she popularized a national phrase.
Everything about “Respect” is iconic, from Aretha playing her own piano, to its inclusion on so many Best Songs Ever lists. It was a massive hit. And while she didn’t pen the lyrics, given the way Aretha lived her life, she might as well have.
The fourth and final song I’d point to is “Day Dreaming.” Recorded in 1972, it is notable firstly because Aretha wrote it herself, the music and the lyrics. You can’t talk about Aretha’s career without pointing out her songwriting talent. She penned “Think,” “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Rock Steady” and “Who’s Zooming Who” amongst others.
“Day Dreaming” was a piece she wrote out of love for the Temptations’ Dennis Edwards. In it, you hear a completely mature talent (Aretha was 30, at full power, with half a life of performing already behind her.) It’s a pop song. A jazz song. An R&B song. A ballad. If you listen to the long version, it starts with an ethereal electric piano (played by Donny Hathaway) that comes out of the stars into a chorus of background singers — again, almost like a gospel song — and then into a breezy mix of chords, minor sevenths and major sevenths, the kind of happy blend that should accompany a daydream. There seems to be no beginning or end, it’s a riff of lyrics, breathy and relaxed and spread perfectly over the music, without break, right into the chorus,
Hey baby let’s get away let’s go away far, baby let’s leave,
Where I don’t care …
Little wonder that the song become a No. 1 hit and was later covered by Mary J. Blige, Corinne Bailey Rae and Natalie Cole. All great versions. None as creative, relaxed or confident as the original.
Death has no ears
Four songs. I could do 400. But that’s indicative of the talent we lost. Tribute concerts are now being formed for Aretha. Radio stations play her music nonstop. Writers scramble to chronicle her accomplishments; it’s like trying to comprehend Babe Ruth numbers.
All across Detroit, people are sharing their personal memories. Judge Keith told me he was always so impressed by how Aretha individually greeted every guest at her traditional birthday or holiday parties, and cooked for them, and only reluctantly would sing for them.
“People were always saying, ‘sing something, sing something,’ but she didn’t really want to,” he recalled.
That’s hard to imagine. But then, it’s hard to imagine having that kind of gift at all. Lucky for us, in this time and place, we don’t have to.
Death has no ears. But death cannot claim total victory. Not this time. The eagle stirred her nest and the songbird went home. But her musical legacy was foretold in that Detroit church hymn when she was 14. Aretha Franklin was born to a voice, and that voice that was meant to be heard. It will be heard for a very long time. And she will never grow old.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.