Aretha Franklin

HistoryHero Portrait Aretha Franklin.png

I was going to shut down the #HistoryHero blog this week. It's the last two weeks of August and I'm aware that my readers are either busy soaking up their final moments of vacation or distracted with the start of school. In addition, I need to do some serious website housekeeping. But then I learned of the illness and eventual passing of one of my life-long heroes: Aretha Franklin.

So I just had to add this one additional post before hanging up my own holiday shingle.

I can't remember when I first heard Aretha. She's just always been there, singing the soundtrack of my life. She began her career before I was born and could very well have been present the day I came into the world, or at least the day I was brought home as a newborn from the hospital. My very devout parents cranked her gospel music on the family stereo most Sundays, along with Mozart and Beethoven. My very cool older sister regularly spun her records on the family turn-table, along with the Supremes, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Sly & the Family Stone. 

Aretha sang for the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, and the Anti-Vietnam War Movements of my childhood. She sang in concerts, in churches, and in movies throughout my adulthood. She rang in second presidential term of Barack Obama with a spell-binding My Country, 'Tis of Thee.

Aretha was a big part of my life, something I didn't really realize until yesterday when the news reached me that she's now gone.

Aretha's playlist spans 60 years, but in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, she claims her own favorite song to be the one that touched me so very deeply as a young woman growing up amidst the Civil Rights, Feminist, and Anti-War Movements: Respect.

We all know this song, but did you know it was written and sung first by Otis Redding? Now, I love Otis Redding, too, but his original version took a stereotypically sexist male point of view: a husband comes home after a hard day’s work and demands the respect of his wife. Aretha shifted the perspective, demanding her man to “give me my propers" and she did so in her no nonsense, full-throttle, full-range, finger-wagging, lyric-belting vocal style that earned her the moniker The Queen of Soul. Aretha’s reinterpretation of Redding's song became THE version. The version that moved me as a child and young woman. The version that become both a Civil Rights as well as a feminist anthem.

Aretha's Respect made me move, it made me dance, it made me smile and sing out loud. It made me think every single time I heard it. It still does. That's high art. And Aretha gave us so many gifts just like it: songs that touched heart, soul, body, and mind on each hearing. 

Here's what Aretha had to say about our shared favorite tune:

“What can I say about this one? Well, I just love it. Of course that became a mantra for the civil rights movement. ‘Respect’ is just basic to everyone: everybody wants it. Even small children want respect. They don’t know that they want it, but they want respect. They let you know when they need something, and when they do, it’s a little respect. Everybody wants and needs respect. It’s basic to mankind. Perhaps what people could not say, the record said it for them.

“I don’t think I was a catalyst for the women’s movement. As far as I know, that was Gloria Steinem’s role. But if I were, so much the better. Women did, and still do, need equal rights. We’re doing the same job, we expect the same pay, and the same respect."

Through tears yesterday, I had the great luck of catching this tweet by the singer, songwriter, actor, and my contemporary, Lenny Kravitz. His reaction to the news of her death mirrors my own. I thank him for providing me the words: 

"The Queen of Soul has left this earth to sit on her throne in heaven. How blessed we were to hear the best that God had to offer in her voice. RESPECT!" 

Please join me in moment of silence for today's Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero: Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Rest in peace, dear Queen. You will be missed. RESPECT!

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