There would be no Chump Lady without Aretha Franklin. I don’t know what the soundtrack of your grief and triumph was, but mine was — and has always been — Aretha Franklin.
She was local royalty. I’m a fifth-generation Detroiter (now expat) and Aretha has always seemed a part of the firmament. I remember her in the Thanksgiving Day parade, astride a golden LP, waving to her subjects — the Queen.
I don’t know when I first started loving her. Junior high school? But my love was fervent and committed. Once I could drive, I’d go to Sam’s Jams in Ferndale (this is how old I am — we used to have to WORK for our music, kids!) and buy her gospel on Checkers. Her jazz on Columbia. Her early Atlantic stuff. Fourteen year old Aretha, singing “Precious Lord Take My Hand.” Aretha’s tribute to Dinah Washington (a friend of the family’s). Aretha singing “Sweet Bitter Love.”
Like all great artists, she made the universal personal. I felt she was MINE. No one understood Aretha the way I understood Aretha. No one loved her with the same passion.
I see how absurd this is, because obviously millions of people loved her too, judging by the 24/7 tribute stream — so please indulge me in another tribute.
I want to tell you how radical Aretha Franklin was to me. And how preposterous it could’ve been that I loved her at all as a young kid.
The Detroit area I grew up in had its apartheids. Those divisions were made popular with “8 Mile” (the street where Detroit begins and the suburbs end). I grew up around 13 Mile Rd., to give you an idea of my proximity. There were the white collar/blue collar divides and there were racial divides.
I didn’t grow up in a house with Motown, or soul, or one sound that was even slightly funky. I grew up WASP. With protestant hymns. Classical music. And if we were feeling really freaky — Broadway show tunes.
WASPy people don’t emote. They don’t fall into swoons in church. They don’t experience ecstasy. They write thank you notes.
Aretha rocked my world. Here was a woman utterly in command of herself, yet flagrantly emotional. Defiant. Vulnerable.
Aretha did pain. She didn’t excuse it. She didn’t hide it under a napkin on her lap. She made art out of it.
A British friend once said to me, “I don’t know how you listen to all that Aretha Franklin. It just sounds like screaming to me.”
Of course I thought this person was an idiot. But then I thought, well, maybe she is screaming. She just transmuted a scream into an aria.
God knows the woman had a lot to scream about. Put aside being a black woman of her generation, Aretha Franklin knew grief. Jerry Wexler, the founder of Atlantic Records, called Aretha “Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows.”
“Her eyes are 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 aura.”
I don’t know the source of Aretha Franklin’s anguish. But let’s report just a few facts we know about her life.
Her father Rev. C.L. Franklin was a famed preacher, orator, and civil rights leader. He was also a serial cheater and, can we say this? Pedophile. He fathered a daughter with Mildred Jennings, a 12-year-old parishioner.
Aretha Franklin also had a child at age 12 — she named him “Clarence” after her father. And another child at 14.
It’s been speculated that her father was the father of her oldest son, but apparently she later named schoolmates as the fathers. Whatever the story, two children in your early teens is plenty of hardship for one life. She later went on to have two more sons, and two failed marriages, one with a wife beater.
She didn’t curl up and die. She created. She was coronated — The Queen of Soul.
For this WASPy Midwestern kid, she made it okay to scream. To defy. To wear strapless dresses over the age of 50. To give zero fucks. If Aretha Franklin felt pain, she was just going to wrap a full-length mink coat around it and face that audience.
And you can all stand up and applaud her. God save the Queen. God rest her soul.