Aretha: I Say a Little Prayer for You
She was a diva. The mink coats, the fur hats, the diamonds and other bling; and, oh yes, the attitude. In fact, she would often bristle if people defined her otherwise.
That was all a part of Aretha Franklin, the undisputed Queen of Soul, who passed away over a week ago.
Days later, no less a music legend himself, Smokey Robinson, said, “She has left us with a musical legacy that kids who haven’t even been born yet will get a chance to experience.”
From the musical power she unleashed at an early age in the church choir lofts to her final concerts and recordings before her health began to fail, she was a female James Brown – ‘the hardest working woman in show business.’
The outpouring of admiration since her death from cancer has been a bit surprising, even knowing how good and popular she was. It’s as if the whole world had some special thank-you card in its drawer that it forgot to mail; and suddenly, thanks to social media, all those cards are now being posted.
I’ll remember Aretha for a whole catalogue of her greatest hits, not unlike Elvis or Michael or Hank Williams or Prince.
But there was one song she sang especially well. She made it her own because she sang it with fire and passion and a sense of really living out the words.
That song was the ‘Star Spangled Banner’.
Okay, there’s something within me about the way soul singers can belt out an anthem. It’s a deep, guttural, way-down-in-your-soul affection and devotion to the lyrics that give it such a feel.
The late Ray Charles did it with his rendition of ‘America’, and even the state anthem, ‘Georgia on My Mind’. Aretha did it with the National Anthem, even though younger listeners say they prefer the late Whitney Houston’s version.
But there was something about the times Aretha crooned ‘O, Say Can You See’ in front of a national audience. The first time was before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, during the neophyte stage of her pop music career. That’s when she sang a version in which she was questioned for appearing to have left out altogether the phrase “land of the free.”
She sang it before the 2006 Super Bowl at Ford Field, in her adopted hometown of Detroit, and again ten years later on Thanksgiving Day 2016 at the same venue. She also sang it back in 1990 before an NBA Finals game in Detroit, and in 1984 she belted out a rousing version while christening an American League Championship Series baseball game, also in the Motor City. Everyone points to the Turkey Day game version because it lasted some 15 minutes long and because she was pouring so much of her soul into it.
Some say every time she sang it, she was attempting to make a political statement. If so, she did more for the spirit of what the national anthem means with her fingers on the keys than Colin Kaepernick did going down on his knees. A picture mosaic of America, from the turbulent civil rights times to the age of millennials.
Yes, a songbird has flown up to heaven now.
Aretha Franklin was born with a voice, a voice that was meant to be heard. It will be heard for a very long time. And you’re right, Smokey, we’ll continue to hear not just the national anthem, but also ‘Respect’, and ‘Think’, and ‘Say a Little Prayer for You’, and hundreds and hundreds more from her catalogue; and so too will those yet unborn.
The body may be gone from us, but the spirit lives and because of that, she – or her music – will never grow old.
Who wouldn’t be impressed?
Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at email@example.com or 252-332-7211.