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Jeff Simon: Aretha, The One and Only, Forever

Jeff Simon

Beauty. Virtue. Excellence.

That's what Aretha Franklin's first name signified in Greek.

We knew none of that in the America of 1963. In fact, when my friend Bobby and I spent many afternoons at the time hanging out at the Flame Record Shop on Jefferson Avenue (next door to the Apollo movie theater), we knew far more about the Rev. C.L. Franklin than we did about his daughter Aretha. She'd been recording since 1960, but the place was loaded with bins of recordings of C. L.'s sermons and religious services. He was the ruling star of the pulpit in inner city neighborhoods and absolutely the star of that record store.

We were there to find the Blue Note and Chess Records that no one else in Buffalo sold. Who is C. L. Franklin? we asked. We were told that he used to be the pastor of Buffalo's Friendship Baptist Church before he moved to Detroit. We were also told he had a daughter who made records too. Her name was Aretha. They had her record in stock.

We didn't care in 1963. We didn't know yet what a cult those Columbia records by Aretha would collect – much less those world-changing Atlantic Records from Muscle Shoals that would begin in 1967.

It's said that when Sarah Vaughan heard Aretha's octave leap at the end of her recording of "Skylark," she publicly vowed never to sing the song again. Until then, "the Divine Sarah" had been known as the reigning virtuoso gymnast of American female singers. Here was this young lady from Detroit's gospel community who had whooped her way to celestial heights that even Sarah Vaughan found daunting.

If Aretha Franklin had never moved from Columbia to Atlantic Records, she would have been just a minor footnote in American music. We wouldn't be spending these summer days in 2018 in mourning for one of the greatest voices – and musical figures – America will ever know.

Columbia simply didn't "get" her, and they knew it. And thereby hangs a fascinating tale. Lord knows they knew jolly well that her gospel-trained voice and work ethic were well-nigh miraculous. She was "discovered" by the most legendary of all American record producers – John Hammond, to whom, more than anyone, America owes Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He was the same amazing, golden-eared figure who had, back in the day, crucially shepherded Count Basie and Billie Holiday, too.

Hammond was, by birth, a Vanderbilt on his mother's side. He was a Marxist aristocrat. An idealist of the patron class. To him, jazz was the greatest art to emerge from American black culture. What could be better then for this young Franklin than to interpret "the great American songbook" (as we call it now) the way jazz singers always had?

And yes, that's even if it meant that in a song like "Skylark" there was "a meadow in the mist/ where someone's waiting to be kissed?" That was fine for the brilliant and romantic white Hoosier and Southern boy who wrote the song (Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer), but it didn't exactly reflect the quintessentially tough urban background of a woman who had her first child at 12 and her second at 14. (She was never fond of being interviewed. If you had been she, you wouldn't have been fond of it, either.)

Hammond knew it. He compared her voice – absurdly – to that of Billie Holiday, whose small, idiosyncratic nasal voice was the exact opposite of Aretha's robust. church-filling vessel of ecstasy. What he meant is probably that, as with Holiday, she was a singular singer from the rougher parts of America's urban life who, once again, deserved to become a household word.

Billie Holiday never really got that far. Aretha Franklin did. It's just that Hammond wasn't the guy to get her there and he knew it.

Jerry Wexler was.

He was a different kind of white guy at Atlantic Records which was, itself, run by the Turkish-American Ertegun Brothers. Wexler was a consummate Jewish-American music professional, street wise and diplomatic. Atlantic was the label of Ray Charles, the first singer to eroticize gospel music for the American radio and jukebox.

On the day that Wexler was about to be told for the first time that Aretha wanted out of her Columbia contract, he was busily engaged keeping the ever-"wicked" Wilson Pickett and provocateur Percy Sledge from angrily having at each other in one of his recording studios.

Wexler went right from that into the news that Aretha was leaving Columbia. He immediately made the phone call to get her, as he had long wanted to do.

HE was the guy for her. In his book, "Rhythm and the Blues," he diplomatically says that when he met her, he knew that she had been "the mother of two before the age of 17" but he doesn't reveal the exact stark facts of her childhood, which will never be comfortable for those raised in conventional middle class American homes.

Sean Kirst: In Buffalo, mourning the little girl who grew up to be Aretha

It's one of the greatest of all stories of American musical commerce. Aretha Franklin almost vanished entirely from American life because she was the continuing victim of a gross misperception of who she was by one of the most brilliant overseeers American music would ever have.

Consummate gentleman that Hammond was, he knew what a mistake he had made with Aretha Franklin. But he also knew that, as he put it, Columbia was a "white company" that couldn't get Aretha where she needed to go.

But there was Wexler, who, eventually, assigned himself to be her producer. He put her at the piano, where she was always comfortable and then let Aretha be Aretha. With the incomparable help of Wexler and his other producers and, often, the musicians at Muscle Shoals, something new in the musical world was born.

The result changed forever the way we would think of female singers in America and indeed black music in general. Ray Charles was the first to eroticize gospel rhythms. Aretha was the first to flavor almost everything she sang with gospel's joyful "good news," even when she was complaining about the "chain of fools" who always wanted to make such a hash of her life.

Those Atlantic hits were stupendous –"Respect' (as soon as he heard her version, the song's composer and first performer Otis Redding admitted "it's HER song now"), "A Natural Woman," "Do Right Man," "Dr. Feelgood," "Think," (with that amazing rising refrain "freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom"), "Young Gifted and Black."

Everyone always knew when she started she was "young, gifted and black" (in the words of Lorraine Hansberry's play title before Franklin's song). It took Wexler and Atlantic to make her the progenitor of just about every female R&B figure afterward, from Whitney Houston to Beyonce.

ABC had a memorial special on Wednesday that showed those two late-life moments that capped off her story with some astonishment after starting as a little girl in her preacher father's choir.

There was, for one, that jaw-dropping moment at a Grammy telecast where Luciano Pavarotti, literally, took sick mere hours before he was supposed to go on. The producer, with all the chutzpah and inspiration in the world, asked ARETHA FRANKLIN to fill in and sing Puccini's aria "Nessun Dorma."

With only two hours to learn it, she did it. To say merely that she "nailed it" is to understate the case feloniously. It was eternal confirmation that this woman – who had been young, gifted and black for so long –belonged ever afterward on America's performing Rushmore.

And then there was Carole King's Kennedy Center tribute. Aretha walked onstage in her luxurious mink, carrying her purse, as if she'd just been nabbed during the dessert course at a local restaurant.

She casually sat down at the piano and sang King's "A Natural Woman" – to King's surprise. For the song's final moments, she casually let the mink slide off her shoulders to the floor.

The camera, at one point, found President Obama brushing tears out of the corners of his eyes.

We know the feeling this weekend.

Do we ever.

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