Jeb Loy Nichols on Aretha Franklin, who, as we are sure you know, died yesterday at the age of 76.
“It’s not an obituary – just some raw thoughts on her passing…”
How do you write about Aretha Franklin? How is that trick achieved? The written word is far too finite, too stationary, too immobile. It ties things down, it explains, it rationalises. It implies a truth. To talk about Aretha is better, at least you’re not looking down at a piece of paper or at a computer screen. You’re looking up, you’re using your voice. You’re connecting in a more direct way. To sing is better still. To sing is to be fluid, to slip and dive, to be uncentered. To be loose in the world. To sing is to engage with air, with movement, with gravity, with wildness. To sing is to start to understand Aretha.
To think about Aretha is best. To be still and to be quiet, to let your thoughts be untethered, unbound by dogma or style. Let your thoughts be both radical and joyful. Let them float, let them be unexpected, let them be magical, let them be heartbreaking; let them be all these things at once and that’s as close as you’ll ever come to singing like Aretha.
People will write that she was born in 1942, that she grew up in Detroit, that she had four children, that her father was C.L. Franklin, a famous preacher. That she recorded this hit and that hit, this album and that album, where and with whom and when and how many copies they sold; people will, as people do, fill pages.
Let them write about Aretha tomorrow. Let them write about Aretha next week. Tonight let’s talk, let’s sing, let’s think about the unknowable, beautiful mystery of Aretha. How did she manage to be Aretha? How did that happen? How, among millions, was she able to enter our lives in such a profound and direct way? Let’s think about her eyes, her fingers, the way she played piano. Let’s think about Rocksteady. Let’s think about the first thirty seconds of Angel, when she says, I got a call the other day, it was my sister Carolyn… Let’s think about her sisters. Let’s think about Do Right Woman, Do Right Man. Let’s think about how she grew up in Detroit with Smokey Robinson. Let’s think about R-E-S-P-E-C-T and how that sounded to millions of women around the world. Let’s think about All The Kings Horses. Let’s think about Day Dreaming.
Let’s think about Don Cornelius saying, in 1974, I’m proud to be sharing this planet with you.
Let’s think about Marvin Gaye, in 1979, saying, the only one who really matters is Aretha.
Let’s think of Curtis Mayfield, in Atlanta, saying, when I say my prayers I find I’m often talking to Aretha.
Let’s think about Jump To It.
Let’s each, if we can, shut up for a minute and think about what it meant to have had Aretha amongst us.