Caught by the River

“I’ve heard Aretha Franklin sing ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”

17th August 2018

Saddened by her death on Thursday Tim Tooher reflects on one of Aretha Franklin’s truly great performances

I have seen the David,
I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too,
I have heard Doc Watson
Play ‘Columbus Stockade Blues’.

Dublin Blues, Guy Clark

To that list, Guy could easily, had it scanned, have added, “I’ve heard Aretha Franklin sing ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”’. For Aretha’s performance of the Goffin-King song is something like perfection, and somehow better than perfect would be. Aretha sings over a simple band of just piano, bass and drums, with her sisters and the Sweet Inspirations as chorus, and Ralph Burns arranging the strings. Six voices, three musicians and a string section work together to create a whole world of feeling in less than three minutes of song.

It aches. It soars. It loves. It hurts. When it’s playing, it’s as good a record as any other ever made. It’s pop music. It’s soul music. It’s the blues. It’s the equal of the best of Da Vinci, Dickens, Shakespeare. It’s the Pyramids, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Taj Mahal. You name any of the recognised masterworks of human culture and what Aretha gives us here is just as good.

The song is a story. It’s the opening scene of a movie. It’s a memory from each of our lives and a hope for all our futures. Its message, its small, modest message, transcends gender, race, any of that stuff. It speaks to all of us. It’s about the healing power of love. The beauty of the moment, heaven right here and right now.

And Aretha sings it like no one else. There are other singers who talk to us as well as she does, but there are none that could ever match her singing this song. It was written for her and she sings it as if the words are hers. Gerry Goffin and Carole King might have mixed the paints that made the song, but it was Aretha that used them to colour our lives. Something happened in that Memphis studio. The singer, the song, the musicians. The stars aligned.

So, thank you, Aretha. You made us feel.