The news about Aretha Franklin isn't good. It's not good at all. Reports from her family earlier this week say the 68-year-old singer, pop culture icon, Detroit resident, and first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has pancreatic cancer
The illness has a high incidence rate among African-Americans, according to John Hopkins University researchers, but it's also the illness that claimed Patrick Swayze's life. The recovery rate is dismal. The American Cancer Society says, "Fewer than 4% (of patients) will be alive after 5 years." Nonetheless, the singer's friends, including Jesse Jackson, and her family say she's "doing very well" after surgery, and some family members "insist she will sing again."
Detroit's local Fox station reports:
Last week the 68-year-old underwent surgery for a mystery illness. The surgery was deemed a success, but the reason or reasons for the surgery were not released to the public. A few weeks ago Franklin canceled all concerts through May 2011 due to "medical reasons."
I immediately agreed to write a tribute to Aretha, thinking that the Queen of Soul's work is in me so deeply this writing tasks would be easy, a cake walk since her music has been the soundtrack playing during critical parts of my life. However, less than 20 minutes into the writing process, I was weeping and wanting to kick myself because my spirit challenged my mind with questions: What made you think you could do this? The Queen of Soul has pancreatic cancer. The prognosis does not bode well. Almost every song you hear from this woman evokes a memory of your mother, your aunts, your childhood, your hopes for love in your youth, your disappointment in love later, even your literal dreams. Aretha has appeared in your dreams singing. You can't write this blog post. What were you thinking?
Those words are no exaggeration. Aretha's music always seems to be near me. When I first heard about her hospitalization and the prayer vigils, I think I went into denial. It was Friday night, December 3, and I was at a Christmas gala, a fundraiser held for a community center in New Orleans, listening to a band, Clark Knighten and the 4X4 Connection featuring Naydja Cojoe.
Naydja was singing one of Aretha songs, "Baby I Love You," and doing a good job of it, too. I was singing along at the table, embarrassing my son, who was a few days shy of his 20th birthday, and making my daughter, who is nearing 30, laugh as well as my cousin's daughter, age 17. I made faces and sang: "I love you. Baby! Baby, baby I love you. I said, 'I love you' ... I love you, I love you, I love you. Baby, I love you!"
That's when my older cousin, the 17-year-old's mother, and my aunt, her mother, said to me, "Did you hear about the prayer vigils people are keeping for Aretha?" (That's what we do. We use her first name like we know her intimately.) And then they told me she was in the hospital.
I didn't answer their question. I just kept working my shoulders to the beat, and then I said to my Aunt Pinkie, "Every time I hear an Aretha song, I think of you, Aunt Jackie, Aunt Ruth, and my mom in Mother Dear's living room, nodding to her music." (Mother Dear refers to my grandmother.)
My aunt smiled. I could almost see her mind heading back to those memories, the ones where I see my mother clap and say, "Sing it! Sing it, Aretha!" I remember hearing these women, these preacher's daughters, talk about the trials of that other preacher's daughter, Aretha—her struggles with another "no good man" who won't try to "do right;" rumors of her drug use (something they'd only heard about); stories of one buying tickets to see Aretha perform in St. Louis only to be disappointed that she didn't show up or couldn't perform during a dark period; the round-robin of phone calls that erupted whenever Aretha (or any other black person for that matter) appeared on television; and another time of an aunt seeing her in concert and loving every minute while also grumbling that "Aretha needs friends. Somebody should tell her that all those yellow feathers make her look like Big Bird."
And I remember sitting in my grandmother's living room as a tween and a teen in the 1970s alone with the "Hi Fi" stereo and the collection of Aretha albums. I recall watching the Atlantic Records label spin around while her Now album played and wondering why this great woman sang with that label and not Motown, home of the other black hit makers—the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, the Jackson Five, and Marvin Gaye.
Later, a grown woman going through divorce from 2002 to 2005 and still in recovery long afterward, I listened to a lot of Aretha, and some more as I ventured into the dating arena again. A man who shall not be named was making a few of Aretha's happier love songs resonate through every pore in my body.
So, last Friday night at the gala, I kept bobbing my head. I put on so many antics for my children, my cousins, and my 80-year-old aunt at our table that the band's singer dragged me on stage to be an instant back-up singer for her Diana Ross and the Supremes set. I'm told I resembled a deer in the headlights on stage, completely stunned to discover I was looking at the audience instead of sitting in the audience. (All footage of that episode has been deleted.) But those joyful moments didn't erase the news I'd heard about Aretha. I could not stop it from looping around the back of my mind, but I didn't cry or feel sad in any way I recognized. I knew the sadness must be there, however, waiting for worse news to come. And worse did come, not news of surgery complications but cancer.
I was not terribly affected by it until I started watching old clips of Aretha as I prepared for this post, and then I felt what I suppose all her fans are feeling, even the ones who've made fun of her weight gain, some of her diva-like behavior, her unique fashion sense, and who have talked endlessly about how she worked that hat she wore to President Barack Obama's inauguration. They talk—we all talk—about what Aretha Franklin did, does, wore, wears, said and says, because we really do think we know her. We think we do because her music has pierced our hearts, drawing to the surface both bliss and sorrow, sometimes exorcising our souls like a priestess might against demons, because she's lived through some of the same heartbreak and breakthoughs we have. She sings the essence of our human condition in her songs with a bluesy, soulfulness embedded in that voice, a glorious, heaven-sent voice, that moves the unseen.
Fortunately for me, there are mountains of information about Aretha online, from her birth in Memphis, Tennessee, to her latest recordings. In addition, bloggers, concerned about her health, are writing their own versions of her biography, such as Mark at New Black Man, who starts his piece with Aretha's gospel singing years. Others focus on controversy but end with what her music means to their lives.
At This Black Sista's Page, the blogger leads into a detailed post about Aretha, one that includes the good and bad, with the sentence "I say a little prayer for you, Aretha." She features the video of Aretha's rendition of the referenced Burt Bacharach classic, and writes:
Aretha, ‘Retha, The Queen of Soul, Lady Soul, Miss Re, Miss Re Re. Under any of these names, her singing has been the iconic soundtrack for many women, even to cinematic characters like Bridget Jones and Murphy Brown. Before all that, however, she’s been ours–that is, she belongs to black people and especially to black women. She talked OUR talk about men and relationships, from “Dr. Feelgood” to “Freeway of Love” to “A Rose is Still a Rose.” Even as a tween, when she burst onto the scene in the mid-Sixties with “I Never Loved a Man,” and then “Respect,” I loved the stories she sang about being a grown woman, and having to deal with heartache and having hope to love again.
Writing briefly, Pam of Pam's House Blend says she tears up "just watching this (a video of Aretha singing "Until You Come Back to Me") and thinking of the contributions of the Queen of Soul." Like me she thinks of an aunt, and the writer at Black Woman Blogging says, "Although Aretha Franklin has no biological daughters, she has millions of us spiritual ones."
Marva at Conversations with Marva expresses a similar sentiment:
Aretha Franklin (or Auntie Ree as I affectionately call her; she’s a member of my family in my mind) has been singing in my ear since I was born. As a child, I remember being absolutely fascinated that such a beautiful sound could come out of a person. Such power and conviction, all tangled up in music that was so grounded in gospel that it was hard to establish if even her biggest hits weren’t about the good Lord and his blessings.
Yes, listening to Aretha, many people seem to move into a realm that mixes a spiritual experience with a highly sensual and sexual one. I wrote about this way of tuning into the Queen in a 2009 post for an Old School Friday meme.
... (Aretha is) a female mistress of heat for this post ... After this song, the live version below, someone may need a cigarette. Listen to the female voices in the audience singing along with her, "Don't send me no doctor, filling me up with all those pills, 'cause I got me a man named Dr. Feelgood and oh oh oh yeah he takes care of all my pains and ills." ... There's a communal Big O at the end of the song. And then it turns into church. I almost spit out my coffee because this is the first time I've heard the live version.
Unfortunately for readers today, that video performance has been removed from YouTube, but you can get an idea of the kind of mood it delivered from this live recording of "Dr. Feelgood," a song Aretha wrote, that I've embedded.
In her 1989 interview on 60 Minutes with the late Ed Bradley she talks about the sensuous and sexual nature of her music.
The second part of the interview shows Aretha talking about her songwriting process and her relationships with men. The clip references quite a few of her hits, such as "Daydreaming" and "Think" with its "freedom" wail. (In a vintage clip at YouTube, you can also see how she developed "Ain't No Way," a song written by her sister Carolyn.) During the 60 Minutes segment, her producer calls her a "lady of mysterious sorrows."
The profile ends with Aretha singing these words: "Life will not kill the dream that I dream."More Aretha Video
The Queen of Soul surprised audiences in 1998. Per Wikipedia:
... with less than 30 minutes to prepare, Franklin stepped in for ... Luciano Pavarotti to sing "Nessun Dorma" at the 1998 Grammy Awards. ((the now deceased) Pavarotti, who was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award that night, was too sick to attend.) She gave a soulful and highly improvised performance in the aria's original key, while firmly stamping out the year with a captivating performance during VH1's "Divas Live" telecast.
I grew up hearing "Natural Woman" on the radio a lot and wrote last year about how Aretha made Carole King's song her own. Here she is singing the song on The Mike Douglas Show during the 60s, an early talk show that my mother rarely missed during the summer.
I also posted video at my blog last year of Aretha singing "Mack the Knife" with Nancy Wilson, Al Jarreau, and George Benson at The 2nd Annual Celebration of America's Music in 1998.
The first Aretha album I purchased with my own money was Young, Gifted and Black, named for a Nina Simone favorite. I bought it when I was 12 and almost wore the vinyl grooves out. The song I played the most was "Daydreaming," and I wasn't into a boy but the meter of the lyrics.
I also danced often to her hit "Rock Steady."
I didn't have to buy her early work when I was a child because my mother and my Aunt Ruth had copies of nearly every album, all lost in Hurricane Katrina.
In 1980 Aretha appeared in the movie The Blues Brothers performing "Think," a song I associate with the more famous "Respect." She released both songs in 1967.
However, that was not her music's only connection to the movies. She recorded the soundtrack for the movie Sparkle and her songs have played behind the lives of some favorite movie characters such as Bridget Jones in The Edge of Reason.
Aretha still influences other singers today, with notable younger stars looking to her for inspiration. At a BET tribute to the singer, Jennifer Hudson sang "I Ain't Never Loved A Man," and she chose another Aretha song, "Respect" for a tribute to Tina Fey. Mary J. Blige covered Aretha's "Natural Woman," and she's also paid tribute to the Queen of Soul at other times on stage as has Joss Stone, who said, "Thank you. Thank you, Aretha. Thank you so much" after performing.
Additionally, American Idol winner Fantasia leaped at a chance to sing with Aretha. In Fantasia's 2007 song "Put You Up on Game," Aretha continues her role as the sister/older woman who gives women advice about men.
Bonnie Raitt's paid her respect as has Gloria Estefan, and male singers have given her her "propers" as well, such as Luther Vandross (See video of Luther and Aretha singing "A House is Not a Home"), who also recorded a version of "Since You've Been Gone."
What is your favorite Aretha Franklin song?
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