What a sad weekend we've had. As everyone knows by now, Aretha Franklin has died at the young age of 76. It's undisputed fact that her music has touched the lives of almost everyone I know. If someone asked me what I knew about Aretha Franklin, I could rattle off the top five hits, just like anyone else, but I knew very little about her life. What I read was both shocking and inspiring. I think all of us hope to leave something for the musical generations that will come after us, so I'm honoring her legacy by sharing some of the things about her that moved me. Thanks Wikipedia!
She overcame the impossible...twice.
I'm 35 and I have two small children. I love them and I would never go back to a life without them, but I have days where it seems impossible to practice, much less lay pathwork for advancement in my career. I was totally shocked to read that Aretha Franklin had her first child when she was only 12, and her second when she was only 14. It takes real fortitude to go through the process to have a child, but it's unimaginable to persevere and pursue a career at such a young age. She famously didn't like to discuss her early pregnancies during interviews, and kept her oldest children close to her throughout her life. The strength that this must have instilled in her is a lesson that I'll remember forever.
She had a lifetime of health problems and marital strife
We all know she won multiple Grammys and has recorded albums since as early as the '50s, but according to those closest to her, she was always obese and never enjoyed a truly happy marriage. She married multiple times, and ultimately ended up surrounding herself with her children and immediate family, and even bought a house to be close to them as they grew ill. The last seven years of her own life were consumed with a battle with cancer and, though her prognosis worsened, she kept scheduling concert dates and unfortunately canceling them. Just like music history class in college, I listened to some of her songs after reading all this, and it deepened her voice for me in a way.
She kept looking ahead
She started as a touring gospel singer at the age of 12 and, as soon as she turned 18, she switched her focus from gospel to pop. She never felt that the early years of her recording career maximized her potential and, at the end of her six-year contract, she moved to a different label that better mixed her vocal capability with more suitable songs and genres. This era is where the songs we love most came to fruition, and yet she still pushed ahead to grow and change. She pursued another album label because she wanted to change her sound and, though she didn't see the same Billboard success as the decade before, she opened her spectrum to recording many different projects with many different songwriters. She changed albums yet again and, as her health deteriorated, many projects she had planned never came to be. Her later years were defined by her most memorable live performances, like the Obama Inauguration and her famous Super Bowl anthem. All this, and she still decided that the best way to advance was to record under the freedom of a label that she created. She had a 60-plus year career that was consumed by cultivating the next level of her talent.
I suppose, after reading all of this, there are two major lessons I've gotten out of this. Although it looked like Aretha Franklin was insanely talented and widely loved, she had a difficult life and worked non-stop. It seems like there are musicians out there that have careers that open up to them with a prayer and a phone call, even though we all do the hard work and some of us never see that light at the end of a very tough tunnel. And yet, when I look at Aretha, it makes me a little sad that she never enjoyed a beautiful marriage or could experience her first two children as pure joy and love. She enjoyed wild success, but maybe she wanted more than what she got. As so many things do, it all comes back to kindness.
Aretha Franklin was a woman who knew what she had and what she was worth. Interviewers were not allowed to record interviews and were required to call her "Ms. Franklin". She had goals and the privilege of choosing her work, which she did wisely and used it to preserve her talent and legacy. She was versatile and covered as many genres as she could, and never shied away from the challenge of a live performance: let's not forget her Nessun Dorma performance as a sub for Pavarotti! All of this points to one quality of her that is undeniable: she wanted her musicality to match the level of her voice, and never compromised that. She kept her level up.
In a way, I'm honored that I was able to work as a musician at the same time she was alive. I have always loved the horn because it's a middle voice that has to be high, and I have taken a lot of the colors from her voice and tried to play with them in my sound. Even in the most redundant and overplayed excerpts on the many, many lists that I've practiced over the years, sometimes I would sing one through as loud as possible in the style of Aretha, definitely when I'm alone and usually on a long road-trip! I don't know if it helped, but it made me smile and freshened the music up in my mind.
So rest in peace, Ms. Franklin. Thank you for bringing your best to all of us and for touching our lives with your talent. Here's hoping that many of us out there are doing more than playing your album for a day, but really appreciating what you've done for us as a true professional. I'll definitely do everything I can to keep your example alive through my music.