ARETHA STARTED A BAT­TLE THAT IS STILL BE­ING FOUGHT

The in­domitable singer re­mains an inspiration as her songs re­main an­themic, says BONNIE GREER

The New European - - Eurofile Culture -

Within days of Aretha Louise Franklin’s birth, on March 25, 1942, a new Bob Hope movie was re­leased called My Favourite Blonde. Hope plays his usual wiseguy, nud­nik and stooge, caught up in a mael­strom he can­not com­pre­hend. His side­kick in life and in film, Bing Crosby, has a walk-on part. Un­billed, he lit­er­ally walks on and off. Mr Cool, he al­most steals the movie, as if Hope was not even there.

The ‘blonde’ of the ti­tle is Madeleine Car­roll from West Bromwich. Car­roll was an in­ter­est­ing and com­plex ac­tor who Hitch­cock, al­most a decade ear­lier, had turned into the ar­che­typal

‘Hitch­cock blonde’ in The 39 Steps. The ‘Hitch­cock blonde’ is slen­der, usu­ally dressed in taste­ful, but sub­tly provoca­tive cloth­ing. She man­ages to find her­self, dur­ing the course of the film, in some kind of bondage. She is a sex doll. A dream.

Aretha Franklin, born a black woman in a racist coun­try and mi­lieu, could not ex­pect to ever be the sub­ject of dream­ing, of pro­jec­tion, no mat­ter how per­verse any of that was. Her des­tiny, if she was lucky, was to be in­vis­i­ble and to live a long, re­spect­ful life sur­rounded by fam­ily and friends and church. And then die as qui­etly as pos­si­ble.

There have been many things said about the Queen of Soul since her death in the sum­mer. Each of us has our own mem­o­ries and favourite songs. But what is too often over­looked is how Franklin gave voice to the in­ner life, long­ing and bat­tle of her peo­ple, of women, of al­most ev­ery­body who took the time to lis­ten. To deeply lis­ten. Be­cause in her great­est songs, there are se­cret trea­sures.

Aretha was the voice. This ti­tle is not unique but a rar­ity, and in pop/r&b at the time of her im­pe­rial pe­riod – the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s – there were only a hand­ful of them: Si­na­tra, Pres­ley, Paul Mccart­ney. You can add oth­ers to fill that list, but with these ones you al­ways knew be­cause what they did was not tell you about them­selves. They told you about you.

And per­haps Franklin did some­thing that no other voice ever did, and still has not ac­com­plished: she made her cover ver­sions of the songs of oth­ers sound like she had orig­i­nally made them.

Af­ter Otis Redding, who had first re­leased Re­spect, heard her cover he opened a set, one of the last ones be­fore he died, say­ing play­fully that a girl had stolen his song. Re­spect, as orig­i­nally sung by this great vo­cal ge­nius, sounds like a cover of Franklin’s.

Her ver­sion is so trans­gres­sive that dig­ging down re­veals it in all its wom­an­power. For ex­am­ple, we mainly chant the re­frain “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. It’s lively and catchy and a bold hook. That re­frain is all the song means to most of us.

But Redding, who was a dear friend of Franklin’s un­der­stood ex­actly what she had done. First of all, Re­spect is a po­lit­i­cal song, any way you want to look at it. Redding’s orig­i­nal is the plea of a black man for re­spect from his wife and so­ci­ety in gen­eral. The deeper feel­ing was that, in 1965 when the song was re­leased, Redding was talk­ing to the na­tion.

The al­most all-male podium speak­ers of the March On Wash­ing­ton, two years be­fore, had helped to re­in­force the idea that the strug­gle was about man­hood and the need to be heard. Women, while im­por­tant and cher­ished and march­ing and dy­ing, too, were side­lined when it came to the mes­sage.

What Franklin did when she cov­ered it in 1967 was make it her own. Her Re­spect is about the lack of recog­ni­tion of black women, of all women. Of who we are and what we need. The lyrics be­come not a de­mand, but a com­mand. And Franklin went much fur­ther.

She also flouts her fi­nan­cial prow­ess, wav­ing her own hard-earned cash in the face of ev­ery man lis­ten­ing and the pow­ers-that-be. She puts her sis­ters Carolyn and Erma in the back­ground as her back­ing singers, to deepen the threat. They chant “Ree-ree”, which is Franklin’s nick­name, used by her fam­ily and close friends. The name that would be the ‘throw­down’ in a street fight.

Ree-ree is urged to push the song higher, de­clare her com­plete in­de­pen­dence not only from males, but from the no­tion that a woman is a sec­ond­class thing. And that black women and women of colour are even more so.

Franklin’s Re­spect is not just a fem­i­nist an­them, or a great dance tune. It is a bold take and so buc­ca­neer­ing a ges­ture that ev­ery woman I knew at the time, all of us born and raised in what used to be called ‘the ghetto’, would hit the dance floor with our fists raised. The “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” part is the call to ac­tion. “Ree-ree, Ree-ree” is the re­sponse. Otis Redding, a man of the peo­ple, had all of this in­for­ma­tion naturally. And he knew that his song was gone.

El­ton John’s Bor­der Song ar­rived with the kind of gospel fer­vour that seemed a mir­a­cle com­ing from him. It was a song sung by a su­perb singer and pi­anist, a man mus­ing to the world about some­thing he knew and un­der­stood. But in a strange way, the some­thing that he knows is what he can also walk away from. Lib­er­ate him­self.

Franklin turns the song into a prayer. She makes it sound an­cient, some­thing sung by en­slaved peo­ple on death-boats from Africa; or the Ir­ish, trapped in their own cof­fin ships bound for Amer­ica.

Any peo­ple mov­ing ei­ther will­ingly or un­will­ingly from their land. Their lives. This song, too, Franklin ren­ders her own, and as won­der­ful as the orig­i­nal is, El­ton John, too, sounds as if he is cov­er­ing her.

In 1998, Franklin stepped in for Lu­ciano Pavarotti at the last minute at Ra­dio City Mu­sic Hall. The au­di­ence ex­pected her to sing one of her sig­na­ture hits. In­stead she chose to sing her dear friend’s trade­mark aria: Nes­sun Dorma.

She does not even at­tempt to make it sound like a piece of opera. It is both gospel and soul. And she hits that last high note the way a preacher brings down the house at Easter. It is said that Ce­line Dion, in the au­di­ence that night, sat gob-smacked.

Franklin sang from that place that is ‘woman’: in­domitable and mov­ing for­ward. She did not make what she sang her own. What­ever she sang was wait­ing for her.

There are many peo­ple who are liv­ing ex­am­ples of how Franklin sang, among them the women and their male al­lies who have been protest­ing against Brett Ka­vanaugh’s ap­point­ment to the Supreme Court, and Na­dia Mu­rad, the Yazidi woman and co-win­ner of the No­bel Peace Prize for her ac­tivism on be­half of vic­tims of rape in war.

Franklin’s world-weari­ness, so dif­fer­ent from her con­tem­po­raries like Mccart­ney, Dy­lan and Otis Redding him­self, ex­em­pli­fies what she could see, what most women can see. In her im­pe­rial pe­riod Franklin carved a legacy that is still un­fold­ing. To para­phrase what leg­end says was ut­tered about Abra­ham Lin­coln at his death: “Now she be­longs to the ages.”

Photo: Getty Im­ages

THE VOICE: Aretha Franklin per­forms top on Top of the pops in 1970

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