Aretha - Life, Love, Laughter & The Groove

Aretha Franklin, Barbara Harris & David Nathan-1976

Going back in time to my adolescent-on-the-verge-of-manhood years, it was all about “Runnin’ Out Of Fools” and then “Chain Of Fools”: Aretha had her share and - as I traversed the ‘lovers’ lane’ she referenced in her cover of Cecil Gant’s “I Wonder” in 1967 – I had mine too. “Sweet Bitter Love” can be particularly bitter when the sweetness is masked in the age-old-but-ageless world-weary blues of “All Night Long” and later “Night Life,” then the natural-everyone-needs-desire for love that had some semblance of mutuality, “Prove It,” “Good To Me As I Am To You” and “Ain’t No Way”….

Back in the mid-‘60s when Aretha’s soulful reign was in its ascendancy, I found solace like so many others in the demand for ‘Respect,’ for someone-anyone to come along and ‘Save Me’ from the pain of misplaced trust; and the awareness that to “Drown In My Own Tears” or feeling that I was (aged 19-going-on-3,000) “Going Down Slow,” that was NOT the answer…

Fact of life, the ‘this-is-for-real’ music that heralded Aretha’s ‘arrival’ in 1967 touched hearts-and-souls with as-lived honesty: so many women and men had ‘looked out on the morning rain, feeling so uninspired’; laid down the gauntlet – ‘you better think, think about what you’re trying to do to me’; and yearned for the kind of ‘do-right-ness’ that would have you say unashamedly, ‘never let me go…’

Personally, Aretha provided ‘I-know-how-you-feel’ laments just when I needed a voice to guide me through my own uncharted territory of love, fidelity, sex, lust, heartbreak and liars and cheats.  After all, there was no manual and as I listened to Aretha – from the very first Columbia LPs I bought and the 45s I ordered direct from Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennessee on through to those early Atlantic genius-laden albums (“I Never Loved A Man,” “Aretha Arrives,” “Lady Soul,” “Aretha Now,” “Soul ‘69”) – I found comfort and understanding that no matter who or how I loved, I was not alone in the eternal quest for a ‘night-time-is-the-right-time’ mate…

Over the decades that followed, Aretha became more than just the musical ‘medium’ for that which I could find no words to express in my everyday life: by virtue of my path from fan to scribe came the blessing of spending time with Aretha, the natural woman.  After I moved to New York in 1975, writing for Britain’s groundbreaking “Blues & Soul” magazine, every chance I got to meet and interview Aretha (with in increasing frequency as the ‘70s became the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond) and to see her performances gave me the opportunity to witness her growth and evolution as I experienced my own. 

We laughed a lot.  I can’t remember too many conversations we had which didn’t contain humour, wit and, I dare say, a certain sass!  Still embedded in my mind as a forever-vivid show of ‘mock horror’ was my reaction to a comment she made in a lengthy interview we did at her suburban home outside Detroit.  The LP “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” was about to hit the streets, 1985 and Aretha was back in stride.  I had avoided getting ‘too personal’ with Aretha in interviews we had done previously, aware and respectful of her privacy… When she chose to talk about being single, being back in Detroit and scoping for a new love, she shared about the challenges of finding a man who would not be intimidated by her global status as a cultural icon (my words, not hers). I will never forget the grin on her face as Aretha Louise Franklin said, without a blink, ‘I like a man who can rise to the occasion!’ I giggled too: “Are you SURE you want me to print that, Aretha?” Another grin…’Uh-huh!’

And so it went for the years that followed… ‘Hey, David, what’s the gossip?’ I didn’t have to ask who was end of the phone when she called my L.A. apartment. More ‘mock-horror’ from me…’I don’t know any gossip, Aretha!’ before we were both guffawing about all manner of stuff.  Then came technology…and Aretha’s all-in-caps emails…and chat about ‘eligible’ bachelors (“I think he should invite YOU to dinner!” as her response to a well-known personality who seemed to feign romantic interest in her but whose sexual preferences seemed undetermined, at least as far as she and I could tell). 

In the last decade of a relationship built on mutual respect, one in which there was an unspoken understanding of why Aretha’s music had so inspired me as a teenager and beyond, there were many precious memories.  Aretha was a major champion for the tireless work of The Rhythm & Blues Foundation (for whom I served as Secretary) and indelibly etched on my memory banks was her public pledge at one of our gala events of $50,000.  She invited two (for the purposes of this article, nameless) fellow divas to match her pledge!  Weeks later, a cashier’s check from Aretha for $50k arrived at the offices of The R&B Foundation. 

Aretha and David, 2014

I sparkle as I think of Aretha, beyond the icon, a friend who made ‘out-of-this-world’ peach cobbler for me, who told me naughty jokes, who I – in return – gifted with CDs of some of her childhood musical favourites, Johnny Ace, Big Maybelle… Enough memories and a few sacred secrets for more than one essay…and today, August 16, 2020, I played Aretha’s music as I prepared my breakfast, then as I took my (mask-adorned) daily walk in London and…it wasn’t the blues, the laments, the songs that first enchanted me back in 1965, 1966, 1967…  It was…the groove-a-licious pure joy of “Rock Steady,” the head-boppin’ “Jump To It,” the loping-reggae-slant of “Until You Come Back To Me”…

I don’t know if Aretha ever found the ‘Angel’ she sang about with so much earnest authenticity in 1973. I did…for a brief while…and then like all angels, time comes when heaven calls… She no doubt met a few in her time too…and it makes my heart-and-soul sing to know that I celebrate today, as my friend Hazel so perfectly stated, Aretha’s ‘angelversary’… Her music continues to provide inspiration, awe at her remarkable artistry as a reminder of her sweet passion, through-the-storm fortitude and her forever unique ability through a voice like no other, to literally love all the hurt away... With deepest gratitude and endless appreciation for whatever had me write that letter and send it to Detroit, to her father's letter back in '65... 

 

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