By Ken DeLaat
The Queen is gone.
And no ascension to the throne looks to ever be forthcoming
Ms. Aretha Franklin passed away Thursday morning and though many of the music makers of my time have departed in recent years this one leaves a emptiness in my heart for the undisputed and never even close to challenged Queen of Soul.
In the mid 60’s as a teenage kid I was totally knocked out when I heard her music for the first time. The airwaves in GR were filled with pop song singers who either tried to emulate the Beatles or Beach Boys, an occasional one hit wonder group and some solo singers that oozed out benign ballads of love and romance conducive to my age group.
There was also quite a bit of hard driving rock and roll around and about but it was hard to come by on the AM stations and FM was just getting its sea legs when it came to offering some alternatives to the bubblegum stuff (Thank you LAV-FM). And we had no soul stations that I knew of back then.
When I first heard Ms. Franklin I was mesmerized. She didn’t sing her songs she owned them. Respect, I’ve Never Loved A Man, Think, etc. tore at your very being with a gritty graphic sound and delivered the unidealized version of love and life. She sang about pain in a way that could make you feel it and she sang about pride in a way that made you feel empowered.
She epitomized soul music because this remarkable woman could bring it like no other.
LSC Lil and I saw her at Pine Knob (remember Pine Knob?) one summer evening driving down with anticipation and heading home with her music blaring from a cassette (remember cassettes?) in our 75 Chevy Van.
She was all we thought she’d be on stage and more.
But it was later on when her music found a forever place in my heart.
We had been married a few years before having our first child. Nearly seven years I believe. When my father-in-law found out we were expecting he said to me “You guys waited so long I wondered if you had it in you.” since most in his generation started working on increasing the family size soon after the nuptials.
Truthfully it felt like a pretty big change was about to occur and while 100% (or so) in favor of the idea it was nonetheless pretty frightening. After the birth, there we were with this little being and the weight of responsibility made me question how on Earth I was going to handle it having always been one who approached life in a pretty carefree, nonchalant manner.
Would I have to change? Could I handle the changes? What would happen if I didn’t? How was this going to alter things in our relationship? Could I possibly measure up to the rigors of parenthood?
This was indeed unexplored territory.
Then one day while rocking our newborn and listening to music (Motown, of course) Aretha pulled out the pipes for her version of the Carole King ballad “Natural Woman”.
I had heard the song a few thousand times and though not feeling at all like a natural woman the lyrics suddenly had new meaning.
Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you
My life was so unkind
But you’re the key to my peace of mind.
She sang what I felt when I held the little person Lil and I had created. There was a different sense of meaning and purpose. A peace of mind in knowing that no matter what was in store in the coming years it would be faced with a new strength. The song proved transformational because it put a stamp on what it felt like to become a parent and how the experience stretches and enhances your ability to love all those who are close to you.
Many years have passed and our two kids are long since grown. Lil and I have been empty nesters for awhile with 4 grandchildren we love to dote on.
And I hadn’t really thought about “Natural Woman” in the same way for awhile.
Then a couple years back (possibly 6-7 since my memory hasn’t the rapier like accuracy I pretend it once had) when Carole King was honored in a ceremony at the Kennedy Center various artists came out to perform her songs.
And while each executed outstanding versions, toward the end of the show the curtains opened and out walked Aretha with a regal air and a fur coat so substantial it must have had its own zip code.
She sat down at the piano and absolutely crushed the song with a trio of talented background singers supporting her pure artistry. It was a version sung for that moment alone and toward the end she stood up and shook off the coat to deliver a lengthy closure that left the entire auditorium in utter awe.
Sure she was in her 70’s and her health was beginning to take its toll but on that stage she was most definitely the Queen and anyone who heard her that night could not in any stretch of the imagination deny it.
And the song resonated with me once again with the message that it is in those we love where we find our strength. The people who make our lives meaningful and connected in so many ways that they are inseparably part of us and essential to our well being.
“Now I’m no longer doubtful
Of what I’m living for
‘Cos if I make you happy I don’t need to do more”
Thank you for a half century of your sweet inspiration Ms. Franklin.
Or perhaps more fittingly, “Your Highness”.
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