"I call Aretha our lady of mysterious sorrows. Her eyes were incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain. Her Depressions could be as deep as the dark sea. I don't pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical genius." (Jerry Wexler)
While at lunch last year, a grad student girlfriend of mine asked me a chilling question " If you substitute food for heroin," she said "just how different is Aretha Franklin from Billie Holliday." It forced me to take a microscope to my own idolization of her, and what the great female artists of black music meant to the world and the terrain of history.
For the past 40 years Aretha has been hoisted on a pedestal of fanatical idolatry and suffocating demands. No performer in the history of African American art has ever had the expectations as had Aretha by her audience. Her body of work isn't a matter of critical record, but of nationalist fervor.
Aretha's artistic stratosphere is a place where she can do no right and do no wrong at the same time; where she is supposed to provide uncontested life affirming inspiration every single time she steps on stage or else. The constant demand for perfection would stilt the growth of any performer; and it has for her work over the past 25 years which, to put it nicely, has been erratic. (Although her last two albums have been very good.)
But to completely abhor the world Aretha lives in would discount the fact she has done so much, reached that stratosphere of perfection so many times, gone so deep into the psyche, and touched the deepest part of so many people's souls her fans couldn't help but fanatically idolize her. If black culture's basic roots lie in the matriarchal aesthetic of the black church, Aretha Franklin had a hold of more branches than most everybody.
At her best, she isn't just a great artist, she's a historical figure. Lady soul. The Queen of soul. The last of the great female gospel communicators, (Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Marion Williams) who single-handedly gave a people back a piece of their culture. When she got her first gold record, Martin Luther King was her presenter (she later sang at his funeral). The overwhelming immediacy of her art has made her a pop culture deity; its personal nature has made her like family to her fans, who worry and fret about her like she is their flesh and blood.
But in a way that reverence rings slightly hollow, because in the end we (her fans, myself included) are not really members of her family but idolaters of her beautiful art. At her best, her music has been so vibrant, visceral, and easy to understand you forget the complicated inner workings and machinations one must have to make art this universally understandable in the first place. And speaking for myself, the deeper I look into her life and work, the more I realize in order to earn the title of "queen of soul," she had to pay a terrible price.
I have to take you back to 1966. Brother Ray had just kicked heroin and came back on the charts with a failsafe, risk free pop album. Otis Redding was revolutionizing pop music everywhere in the world but the U.S. top 40 charts. James Brown was just beginning to redefine musical minimalist polyrhythmic composition. James Carr was in his manic-depressive prime. Motown was at its apex, the hit factory at its mightiest before Berry Gordy's dictatorial pop constraints would force it to grind to a halt.
And Aretha Franklin was a struggling jazz vocalist, going through hell. A gospel prodigy with a huge underground reputation, she married Ted White, a smooth talking hustler from Detroit who served as her Svengali/manager/personal dictator. Throughout the early to mid '60s, White cajoled her into making overly mannered jazz records; the kind of "tasteful" yet patronizing crossover 45s that underestimated its audience.
He also made Ike Turner seemed like Mr. Rogers. From the pages of Soul, Sepia, and Time Magazine to the personal accounts of her closest friends (family, Jerry Wexler, various producers, and friends) you could hear stories of vicious public and private beatings and a disciplinary streak that would give the marquis de Sade pause (he would force her into a room for four days straight to write songs.) He had single-handedly wrecked Aretha's relationship with Columbia Records and left her career seemingly in tatters. Yes she was a talent, but who wanted the abusive bully (a racist, too) that came with her?