I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin for as long as I can remember.
But it was inside the walls of the Buffalo church where she spent time as a child, where her father once presided as pastor, that I felt the power of her soulfulness.
My son was invited to a "shed" – vernacular for a jam session - at Friendship Baptist Church on Clinton Street in 2013, through a family friend who was a parishioner. He played, impressed some of the church members and, within a few weeks, was hired as bassist for the Friendship Baptist Music Ministry.
Our lives changed immeasurably over the next two years. The three-hour Sunday services were more celebration than solemn duty, and the music never stopped, even while Pastor Edward Jackson was delivering his rousing, compassion-soaked sermons. My son learned so much about music during his time there – how to listen intently, how to contribute to the conversation, how to play in the elevated region of soulfulness.
But the lessons transcended music. We were the only white people there at most of these services, which were always attended by a full house of loyal parishioners. The color of our skin didn’t matter to anyone. We were embraced as family, from the moment we walked in the door.
This was the soulfulness that Aretha’s singing embodies transformed into the everyday values of community, acceptance, love and brotherhood.
Franklin, the undisputed Queen of Soul, died Thursday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. Though she is most closely associated with Detroit, which she considered her home, her family moved to Buffalo when she was 2 before relocating to Detroit several years later.
She is the greatest artist to emerge from the African-American Baptist church community into the broader, secular music world. Other towering figures who followed similar paths – Sam Cooke and Mavis Staples come immediately to mind – also contributed greatly to American music, but Franklin earned the title “queen.”
What we now know as "soul" is really the marriage of "black church music," spirituals from the era of slavery and secular rhythm and blues. And though Franklin made her fame outside of the church, she never really left the church behind. It was always there in the music.
And it remains in Buffalo.
“Buffalo has a rich legacy of music and Aretha is a big part of that legacy,” said Toney Rhodes, keyboardist, composer, bandleader and director of worship and arts at Friendship Baptist. “It is an honor to serve at the same house of worship where she once served. It also means a lot to have her added to that list of great artists who have contributed to the thing I call ‘the Buffalo Spell.’ That soulfulness is a Buffalo thing.”
Understanding that soulfulness demands that we note the difference between over-the-top, diva-esque behavior – ego music, really – and the idea that singing and playing are sacred acts meant to enlighten both the performer and the listener. True greatness requires humility. Aretha understood and embodied that idea. Her sound will endure precisely because of its soulfulness and its ability to communicate empathy. Former President Obama’s Facebook post paying tribute to her underlines this fact.
“For more than six decades ... every time she sang, we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine,” Obama wrote. “Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade – our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human.”
“Soul is a way of life — but it is always the hard way. Its essence is ingrained in those who suffer and endure to laugh about it later,” a reporter for Time Magazine wrote in a 1968 cover story on Aretha. Aretha said the same with fewer words in that same piece: “Soul is just living and having to get along.”
“Aretha was the epitome of what true artistry once was, and still is about,” said Linda Appleby, the director of the gospel choir at Villa Maria College, who accepted Aretha’s 2016 induction into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame on her behalf.
“She is one of the most influential singers in American history. She led the way for women when doing so was not acceptable or embraced. She exemplified and walked the walk of respect and fearlessness, encompassing all aspects of music, her faith and her people. She never forgot her roots or family here in Buffalo, either."
Aretha's spirit will forever be in residence in Buffalo. You can hear it every Sunday at Friendship Baptist. You can hear it every time another young musician learns to get out of the way and let the music speak through them.
“We’ve lost an icon, a legend, a warrior and a true gift from God,” Appleby said.
We also lost a person who tried to show us through music how to connect with each other. But she left us quite a road map.