By Jazz Journalist/Dee Dee McNeil
August 25, 2018

When I first met Aretha Franklin, I was maybe 22 years young. I had gone down to the Fireside Lounge in Detroit where she was performing. I believe she was signed to Columbia records then and she was recording jazz songs. I had those albums in my collection. I loved hearing her sing “Skylark,” “Take A Look” and “Mr. Ugly” was another one of my favorites.

I remember my friend, Marthea Hicks, took me backstage to say hello to the queen. She was gracious and downhome; still getting dressed for her appearance. At that time, Marthea had a radio program on a local Detroit station and her father was a minister, so she and Aretha had that in common. Rev. C.L. Franklin probably knew Rev. Hicks quite well. I remember feeling star-struck, sitting in the dressing room and being absolutely quiet. I was overwhelmed just being in the queen’s presence. No one could sing a song with the emotion, passion and pitch like Aretha Franklin. I think, at one time, I might have owned just about every record Aretha Franklin recorded. But my record collection of over 2000 LPs was sold three years ago when I cleaned out a storage space in Detroit. Since then, I’ve replaced my Aretha Franklin collection with CDs and often listen to her. One of my many favorites is her Amazing Grace CD. I was in the audience both nights when she recorded that album ‘live’ at James Cleveland’s church in South Central Los Angeles. The electricity in his historic church was palpable. Cameras were everywhere and they filmed that session. I hope that film is released, because that was an exceptional afternoon and evening of unforgettable music. Her dad was still alive then and Reverend Franklin was sitting right upfront in the first row. Aretha was playing piano and recording Marvin Gaye’s song, “Holy Holy.” She kept going over the introduction and being the perfectionist that she was, she kept stopping and starting over. She wanted to play it a certain way. Her dad, the honorable Reverend Franklin, finally encouraged her saying, “play it Aretha” and You can hear him on the original recording speaking those encouraging words. I don’t hear him on this newer CD I bought. But that was the time she played it perfectly and that’s one of the takes you hear on her recording that is beautifully performed. There were plenty of cameras there that night. I do hope they release that documentary because the music and Aretha’s performance were both electric! The spirit in the room was palpable. The Southern California Community Choir, directed by Rev. James Cleveland, was on fire. Aretha Franklin’s music was a soundtrack for our lives. Every album and every single she released reminds me of a special time in my life. She influenced so many singers. Chaka Khan told me once that her family used to refer to her as “Little Aretha,” and how much the queen meant to her. As a young singer, Chaka proudly admits patterning herself after Aretha Franklin, along with the influence of Stevie Wonder. You can hear Aretha’s influence in the vocals of Patti Labelle, Mary J. Blige, Fantasia, Whitney Houston (who was her God Child), Natalie Cole and so many more. No one could slide to a note like Aretha. She changed the face of Rhythm and Blues music, the same way that Ray Charles did. Both of them brought Gospel music into the mix and the spirit of a deep belief in God. Aretha Franklin also brought awareness to the Civil Rights movement with both her songs and actions. After all, art is always the reflection of a society. Aretha Franklin’s songs lifted us and addressed the challenges we faced as a people. She spoke up for women’s rights in her songs, long before the “Me Too” movement. She always made us feel proud of ourselves and our community by the way she carried herself and with the songs she sang.

She supported Dr. Martin Luther King, who was a family friend, and Aretha consistently offered her songs and support during the civil rights movement. If Americans didn’t realize her importance and the impact of her amazing talent on the world stage, they sat up and took notice when, on August 16, 2018, she overtook the news media on all major television stations in America. The Queen of Soul was featured prominently on CNN, MSNBC and more. Instead of the negative news we are used to seeing on network television, the airwaves paused from their usual news feed to celebrate the life and legacy of Aretha Franklin, our unforgettable Queen of Soul. Rest In Peace, beloved Aretha, and thank you from the bottom of our hearts for sharing your voice and your unrelenting love with us, in hopes of making the world a better place.

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