Archive for Aretha’s Funeral

To Queen Aretha with Love!

Posted in A Remembarance to Aretha With Love with tags , on September 19, 2018 by playthell

The Greatest Bows to the Queen

Another Cultural Icon has Slipped Away

Today, Friday October 31, Detroit held a going home ceremony for their illustrious daughter Arethea Franklin, the legendary “Queen of Soul,” and what a celebration it was! As was to be expected, many luminaries from the music world were there, and through the alchemy of television and the internet the whole world bore witness as her memory was praised in soaring song and magnificent oratory….. as few have ever been praised.

Testimonies came from preachers and politicians, community leaders, fellow artists, engaged scholars, iconic Civil rights leaders, family and friends. There has seldom been as many heavenly voices and marvelous musicians gathered in a single performance, and the music was heavily based in the gospel tradition of the black church; the sacred smithy from whence Aretha’s artistry was born, forged and continued to be inspired.

There were so many magnificent performances it could inspire admiration and even provoke envy from a choir of angels, and thus is beyond the scope of this remembrance to adequately cover no matter how erudite and able the writer. Hence I recognize that to chose any one performance for special attention would be arbitrary, and thus appear to do injustice to all the others that were equally as worthy.

That said, as I write my spirit is dancing to the powerful singing of Ms. Adurey DuBois Harris, and the amazing Chaka Khan. Thus I feel compelled bear witness. Beyond this I will urge all who loved Aretha to witness the celebration themselves on You Tube. Unless you got a hole in your soul you will experience a baptism by sonic fire, sweet tones that touch the soul. Music with a message crafted in grand poetic phrases, delivered by God’s Trombones in the intoxicating cadences of the black protestant church; gushing forth like waterfalls that bathe you in the word. Mind that you don’t find…..your spirit dancing too.

As my Grandfather Deacon George Benjamin would declare: They had church at the Greater Grace Temple in Motown today. The grandeur of the Afro-American church was on full display. It was an Amazing Grace of such power it could even touch the soul of an un-churched heathen like me.  I was moved to tears by Ron Isley’s rendition of “His Eyes Were On the Sparrow,” a song I heard my Grandmother Claudia – as righteous a Christian woman as ever lived – sing many times when I was a boy, while accompanying herself on the piano.

When I heard that Aretha Franklin had finally danced and joined the ancestors it didn’t come as a shock. Having witnessed several of my friends go through this ordeal, once I heard she was in hospice care I knew this was the final step before death. Yet, despite the fact that I was expecting it, I am having a hard time finding words adequate to express what I am feeling just now. And I never have problems finding the right words for any occasion; writers block is a alien phenomenon to me. Whenever I wish to write something about anything I just sit down and do it.

I have been told by my fellow scribes that this is a gift, perhaps so, but it is a gift that for the moment has stopped giving. As I sit staring at the blank page through the tracks of my tears, I wonder if there are any words that can capture the magnificence of the Grand Diva whose soulful voice provided the background sound for so many magic moments in my life…in and out of bed. For years I would tell people that Aretha had permission to sing in my head, my heart, or my house whenever she felt like it!

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Despite the fact that I knew many of the Afro-American icons in my life and time, I met Aretha only once, and only briefly. It was at the beginning of her career, before she became a big star. She was playing the Showboat, a small Jazz club on Lombard Street in Philadelphia. The Showboat was legendary as a venue for straight ahead Jazz virtuosi like John Coltrane and Art Blakey, who were known for their artistry rather than commercial success.

The Showboat attracted an audience of “purist” for whom “going commercial”- which is to say becoming too popular and making money – was the kiss of death for a “serious” musician. This, of course, was a distinction that was born with the Be-bop revolution ushered in by musicians of genius such as Charlie Yardbird” Parker, John Berks “Dizzy” Gillespie, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, Theolonius Monk, Oscar Pettiford, et al. These master musicians were obsessed with being considered “serious artists” rather than mere “Negro entertainers.”

The masters of big band Jazz such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Andy Kirk were not burdened by this artistic angst for they were unconcerne with such matters. Like William Shakespeare, a theater owner, they understood that performers could be great artists and be popular i.e. commercially successful too! Aretha was cut from that cloth.

At the Showboat gig she played piano with her trio and sang magnificently. I attended the last set of a Saturday night show. And as the witching hour approached she played Theolonious Monk’s Jazz standard Round bout Midnight, and as Sunday morning came in Aretha turned to the audience and began to speak while playing softly on the piano.

Aretha told us that she was a child of the church and learned to sing in the church choir. She explained that her daddy was a great preacher, the Reverend  C.L. Franklin of Detroit – who was one of the first preachers to make his sermons available on commercial recordings – and that if she were home her daddy would expect her to sing at the morning service. Then she said: “So I’m gonna take yhall to church this morning. Open the doors and let everybody seeking fellowship in.” 

Accompanying herself on piano, she gave a marvelous solo performance of Precious Lord Take My Hand.” This song, which introduced the modern Gospel sound into black church music, was composed by Thomas Dorsey and first recorded by the incomparable Gospel Diva Mahalia Jackson; it is a healing hymn, a balm for the wounded spirit. The character of this song was shaped by it’s raison d’etre.

Professor” Dorsey, as he was popularly known, was a bluesman; the pianist and arranger with blues Diva Ma Raney’s band. He was travelling with her on tour when he got word that his wife was in the hospital and was having difficulty giving birth. He left the road immediately and hastened to her bedside…. but she and the baby died before he reached her.

It was in the depth of this pain and dispair that Dorsey composed “Precuous” Lord.” Hence the poignant poetry of pain and pathos bordering on dispair, rescued by appealing to the grace of God. It is a perfect marriage of words and music that produced an artistic edifice powerful enough to shelter the battered soul. Aretha’s rendition of this healing hymn was so deeply moving she invoked the spirit of God in “the house of the Devil.” She would evoke this same soul power when she sang it for Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral. Aretha’s soul stirring rendition of this song concluded her set to rousing applause.

I made my way over to her and expressed my admiration for her musical gifts, and predicted that she was going to be big! History has proved me prescient in this instance; for she became very big indeed! Not only is there no singer in 20th century American music more important than Aretha Franklin, but the amazing line of Afro-American Divas in the Rhythm&Blues / Pop music genres are her artistic progeny.   Natalie Cole, Whitney, Mariah, Mary J. Blidge, Byonce, etc On her first hit record “This Will Be,” Natalie Cole come perilously close to outright imitating Aretha’s style. Whitney was taught the art of singing by her mother, Cissy Houston, a fabulous singer who sang back up for Aretha.

When I was hired to write the official CBS biography for Mariah Cary by Marylin Laverty, Director of Publicity for Columbia Records Group, before the release of her first album, Mariah told me that although her mother was an opera singer and she had been around classical singers growing up, Aretha Franklin was the major inspiration for her. And if one has discerning ears, you can hear Aretha’s influence on Mary J, whether she says so or not.

White singers and musicians were also influenced by Aretha. Ten time Grammy Award winner Bonnie Rait says he got both her concept of how to be a singer and a woman from listening to Aretha’s records. Elton John says she is his favorite piano player, and Paul Mccartney has been effusive in his praise of her artistry and generously confesses her effect on the Beatles. The tragic British Pop Diva Amy Winehouse was so influenced by Aretha that some misguided British toblid wags had begin to call her “The Queen of Soul!” I wrote a brutal critique of that bogus claim in my essay, “ Fallen Angel.”

It is enough to declare that as a vocal artist, in the realm Gospel/Rhythm and Blues, Aretha reigned without a rival! Her 18 Grammy’s, numerous gold and platnum albums, myriad other honors and acolades, plus the love of millions of faithful fans around the world for over half a century, provide unimpeachable evidence for this claim.  The power of her artistry so moved the great Leontyne Price, Prima Donna Absoluta of the Grand Opera, she testified that when she wanted to listen to a singer for pure pleasure in private moments…she always chose Aretha. Now let every head bow and every tongue confess the Queen’s majesty.

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But beyond the extended praise for Aretha’s mastery of song – the apotheosis of which was 91 year old actress Cicily Tyson’s rendition of Paul Laurance Dunbar “When M’Lindy Sings,” there were many remembrances of Aretha’s contributions to the liberation struggles of her people. Since that struggle has always been based in the black church from the movement to abolish slavery in the 19th century, to the great Civil Rights struggle that abolished the legal racial caste system that arose to arrest the progress of Afro-Americans after Civil War and Reconstruction destroyed the system of chattel slavery, many of the Civil rights leaders that paid tribute to Aretha’s activism were ministers. Since I can command no superlatives to adequately convey the full granduer of their testimonies, a mere description of their panegyrics will have to suffice.

They arose, Gods Trombones, and offered their fanfares one after the other: the Reverends Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Bishop William Barber and Aretha’s homeboy the Reverend Doctor Michael Eric Dyson – erudite philosopher and preacher – among others. In the rolling cadences of the Afro-American sermon, an art which the literary masters Zora Neal Hurston and James Weldon Johnson called “epic poetry,” they called upon great thinkers from Dr. WEB Dubois to William Shakespeare, to modern prophets like Dr. Martin Luther King, to the prophets of the Old and New Testiments.

They told how Aretha went on a nationwide tour with the great actor/singer/activist Harry Belafonte to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when Dr. King didn’t know how he was going to pay the organizations bills, thus keeping the most important organization in the Civil Rights Movement alive. And we learned that she defied her conservative Christian father when she bailed Angela Davis, a Communist radical activists, out of jail. This is a side of Aretha that many of her fans do not know.

Alas, when the Reverend Jasper Williams Jr., pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Georgia, took the podium we were reminded that the black American church has it’s progressive and backwards tradition. Rev. Williams belongs to the conservative fundamentalist wing. I had never heard of him before, but based on his sermon he would be right at home with the reactionary white southern Evangelicals.

In a discourse on the meaning of “soul,” which began with some interesting insights on the subject inspired by a a passage in one of Rev. C.L. Fanklin’s sermonsJasper’s presentation quickly degenerated into a gaggle of fundamentalists fiddle faddle that posited false dichotomies between the need to have “good housing” vs. having “good homes,” when the plain truth is we desperately need both!

Then he rattled off some figures on black lives lost as a result of racist attacks vs. black lives snuffed out by the predatory black criminals that plague our neighborhoods. While this is a touchy subject that should be honestly confronted, Jasper’s speech lacked the proper context and nuance; hence it sounded like the victims and perpetrators are in it together. To the naive or malicious this provides a rationale for the argument that victims share the blame for their victimization.

This is a well worn tactic of the racist reactionary right, and this speech might well give them new ammunition to attack us with racist propaganda. It’s much like a sheriff who rids into t town ravaged by bandits…and shoot the wounded!  Before Jasper spoke, Dr. Dyson had pointed him out as an exemplar of a style of black preaching called “Whooping,” a style common to old style down home black preachers. celebrated by James Weldon  He proved to be a master of the style, but the gravitas of his sermon did not rise to the artistry of his oratory: He was preaching pious prattle!

Yet a few moments folly could not seriously injure the magnificent veneration ritual that served as the last rites for the Queen of Soul. This celebration of a life well lived will be much noted and long remembered, which is fitting and proper for a great performer, whose profound artistry touched millions of souls around the world repeatedly.

The universality of Aretha’s appeal was dramatically on display when she appeared at a Kennedy Center Honors ceremony where the prolific songwriter Carol King was being honored, apparently unbeknownst to Ms. King.  Decked out in a fabulous gown accented by a full length fur coat, her ever present pocket purse marking her an elegant black church lady til the end, Aretha strolled onstage and sat down at the piano. To the astonished delight of Carol King, and everyone else in attendance,  Aretha began to sing “Natural Woman” in a way that only she could do it.

The power of her performance mesmerized the multi-racial cross-generational audience and moved President Obama to tears. As her performance brought back poignant memories of ladies I have loved before, the great loves of my life, I found myself silently weeping too. That’s when I realized how my adult life has been continually enriched by the power of Aretha’s songs; she inspired many bright moments in my life.  Hence in profound gratitude for the Queen’s prolific benefactions, I felt compelled to pen this remembrance to Aretha with love….

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The Videos Below Show Scenes from the Funeral

And a couple of Aretha’s great performances.

Smokey Robinson’s Eulogy

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pE3cu0pfNc

President Bill Clinton’s Tribute to Aretha

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5nvihg6Yw8

The Reverend Al Sharpton’s Eulogy and Reading of a Letter from the Obamas

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLts9vLmS4A

Watch Jennifer Hudson’s Electrifying Performance of “Amazing Grace”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNHGWwzrKUk

The Reverend Jesse Jackson Eulogizes His Friend

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNHGWwzrKUk

The Extraordinary Tribute to Aretha by HomeboyDr. M.E. Dyson

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3Os2dc6bFY

Another Detroit Soul Icon Ron Isley Eulogies Aretha and stirs our Souls with Song

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFoEnT85UdE

Chaka Khan Gets the Mourners on their Feet

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYEkgnBIyJ8

Cicly Tyson Reads Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “When m’lindy Sings”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nB71IdcsNc

A Natural Woman

Aretha’s Magnificent Performance at the Kennedy Center

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHsnZT7Z2yQ

Aretha Sings “Precious Lord” at Dr. King’s Funeral