“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.” — Former President Barack Obama
I grew up in Detroit in the 1960s where Aretha Franklin, the undisputed “Queen of Soul,” was affectionately known as “Ree-Ree.”
Listening to Franklin’s soulful, stirring voice was moving for me, even as a young boy – 12 years old – and since the iPod hadn’t been invented yet, I would sometimes hum Franklin’s musical hits while walking home from school.
Franklin died Thursday at 76, the result of pancreatic cancer. The world has lost perhaps the most phenomenal singer in music history.
“In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart,” Franklin’s family said in a statement Thursday. “We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”
Franklin was a legend. She was an extraordinary singer and a powerful voice for civil rights in the 1960s. Detroit claims her as its own – and rightfully so –since she began her career as a child hitting sky-high notes inside New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit – but Franklin really belonged to the world.
Who hasn’t tapped their feet or danced to “Respect,” or sang aloud to “The House That Jack Built” or “Rock Steady” or “Eleanor Rigby” or, in a rousing tribute to The Rolling Stones, “Jumping Jack Flash?”
I never met Aretha Franklin, I saw her on a couple occasions in Detroit, but I certainly felt her indelible presence while growing up in Motown.
I was raised on Detroit’s East Side in a tight-knit Black community of well-manicured lawns where the children of Levi Stubbs, the lead singer for The Four Tops, lived next door.
On hot summer nights with the windows open to circulate the hot air, I could often hear the soothing sounds of The Four Tops on the record player next door while his children – Deborah, Beverly and Raymond — sang the parts of background singers — hits like “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” and “Bernadette.”
Sometimes, perhaps on his way out-of-town for a performance, Stubbs would call Raymond and I into the street for a foot race. One time, Stubbs, dressed neatly in a black suit and hard-sole shoes, counted off to start the race, sprinted quickly to the end of the block, slowing down just enough to tease us as we struggled to catch him before he crossed the makeshift finish line. He always beat us.
I remember Stubbs sharing his admiration for fellow singers like Aretha Franklin. I also recall a memorable duet in 1986 – “I Want To Be With You” — where Franklin plays piano while Stubbs leans over her crooning in his legendary raspy voice as Franklin makes a passionate reference to The Four Tops singing at her wedding.
“It’s Levi and me,” Franklin sings. “They can’t hide us now.” And she laughs with Stubbs, “I can’t look at you!”
Stubbs died in 2008. He was 72. Franklin was 76. Both of these larger-than-life singers were part of my childhood upbringing – Stubbs, who I knew personally — and Franklin, who I admired and respected.
Bruce Johnson, owner of Avatar Salon and Wellness Spa in Silver Spring, Maryland, recalls meeting Franklin in 2009 after receiving a call from Franklin’s business manager, who was referred by Alexis Herman, the former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and one of Johnson’s VIP clients.
“All I could remember is the amazing feeling I got that I was going to meet such a legend – Aretha Franklin — and actually do her hair,” Johnson recalled. She wanted me to get her ready for the Kennedy Center Honors where she was going to introduce the life of the amazing Grace Bumbry. Now I had done some interesting celebs before (Patti Austin, Micki Howard, but this was one of those wow moments that I felt I never would forget.”
“Our conversation was easy and I really felt as if I was talking to a family member as she was very engaged in how many kids I have and where I was from,” Johnson told me.
“She was a very personable individual and made me promise not to cut her hair because her stylist in Detroit was the only one who could perform that service. You gotta understand a Black woman and the relationship and trust they have with their hometown hair stylist,” he explained.
“What she left me with was an inspired reality of the everyday customer who would say things like, “Hey, these curls aren’t tight enough or I need you to brush this look out and then style it!”
“Here I am thinking how wonderful it is to be in Aretha Franklin’s presence and she hits me with client-stylist relationship stuff,” Johnson said. “I’m very glad I was able to meet Aretha Franklin and this meeting certainly made my year of events to remember.”
Franklin was the first woman, not African-American woman, but woman, admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
She recorded 112 charted singles on Billboard, including 77 Hot 100 entries, 17 top ten pop singles, 100 R&B entries and 20 number-one R&B singles, becoming the most charted female artist in the chart’s history.
From 1967 to 1975, she had more than two dozen Top 40 hits and she won 18 Grammy awards, including the honor for best female R&B performance for eight straight years. She was one of the best-selling musical artists of all-time, having sold more than 75 million records. She is listed by Rolling Stone magazine at “The 100 Greatest Singers Artists of All Time.”
I appreciated Franklin’s phenomenal musical gifts while growing up in Detroit so many years ago– and I treasure her melodies even more today.
PHOTO: PR Photos
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