By Libra Boyd
Gospel Music Fever
Aretha Franklin died today at the age of 76, after a bout with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer. The sadness I feel is indescribable.
I find it impossible to overstate the Queen of Soul’s influence in the world of music. Lady Aretha performed both the sacred and secular with unparalleled vocality and mastery. Rolling Stone declared her to be the greatest singer of all time. Millions around the globe and I completely agree. In fact, my absolute favorite performances will always the ones during which she accompanied herself at the piano. Her musicianship was virtuosic; however, it was often overshadowed by her other-worldly vocal talent. You’d best believe that both were God-given gifts. Although Lady Aretha was accepted to the Juilliard School to study classical piano in 1997, she had exhibited prodigious piano-playing abilities that enlivened even her earliest recordings and live performances as a youth.
I last attended an Aretha Franklin concert just over two years ago. The sold-out show was simply amazing. The queen held court for two hours, serving one hit classic after another. From her gospel catalog, she pulled “Precious Memories,” inviting gospel greats Melvin and Doug Williams to join her onstage. The arrangement was from her 1972 album Amazing Grace, the biggest-selling album of her entire six-decade career. As the words, “Precious memories, how they linger / How they ever flood my soul” wafted through the Durham Performing Arts Center auditorium, I wondered if this might be my final live experience with Lady Aretha. It was a sobering thought; I wish it had been a fleeting one. She appeared to be well and she sounded superb; nevertheless, rumors were swirling, and had been for some time, about her health and impending retirement. Regrettably, I was right: I would never see her in person again.
Aretha Franklin has died. The sadness I feel is indescribable.
Media outlets all over the planet will say much in the coming days about her life, her upbringing and the guiding hand of her famous father Rev. C.L. Franklin, her storied career, and her iconic accomplishments which include multiple Grammys and one of the best-selling albums in gospel music. Accordingly, I’ve decided to repost a write-up that I first published here on GMF in 2012, reflecting on my first live Aretha concert experience.
Also tune in this Monday, August 20, as I dedicate the entire hour of “The Gospel Music Fever Show” to the memory and gospel music of Lady Aretha. The broadcast will air at 12 PM CT (1 ET) at kwaygospel.com.
The queen has died. The sadness I feel is indescribable. Yet, I am thankful for God’s gift to us known as Lady Aretha Louise Franklin. Rest with the ancestors, Queen…
Aretha Franklin: Pumping Out Soul and Preaching Up Gospel
By Libra Boyd
Gospel Music Fever
This story first appeared Feb. 10, 2012, on GMF.
Mostly everyone knows that Aretha Louise Franklin is the Queen of Soul. If not, at her insistence, they’d better recognize. I’m pretty confident that everyone at Durham Performing Arts Center is clear about it, but after the second half of last night’s ninety-minute show, some may think she’s solidified a spot among gospel’s royals, too.
Aretha’s fans see she makes no apologies for her relationship with Jesus Christ, and aficionados know her roots run deep in the church. So it was, Her Majesty took us on a ride through five decade’s worth of R&B and soul hits before sitting at the piano to play and sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It was easily the most emotional performance of the night, with her instrumental intro and interlude underscoring the depth of her musicianship. And while the song itself isn’t gospel, its composer Paul Simon cites Rev. Claude Jeter’s line, “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in My name,” taken from the Swan Silvertones’ “Mary Don’t You Weep,” as his inspiration.
Maybe that’s why Aretha got to feeling churchy and wound up hurling a sermonette at the audience by the song’s end, testifying that the Lord’ll make a way. Of course, charismatic church folk know they can’t just “think about Jesus” without wanting to “dance all night.” By the time her hallelujahs infiltrated the rafters and penetrated the heavens, the orchestra had cued up music for a praise break.
From there, Aretha stepped back to center stage. Staying in her gospel vein (which incidentally brought her the biggest selling album of her career, Amazing Grace), she sang the worshipful “One Night with the King” before abruptly shifting gears to her 80’s R&B smash “Freeway of Love.” Determined to include God on that ride too, Aretha shouted “Good God Almighty” and recited the 23rd Psalm while her singers turned the corner on the vamp and changed lanes–first chanting “freeway” and then “higher,” before accelerating to an exclamatory “Jesus!”
The old school would call it straddling the fence. Somehow, however, the Queen has managed to maneuver the freeway of sacred and secular without being frowned upon by the same churchers who declare it to be disgraceful when other artists do so. Personally, I’m okay with the presence of gospel tunes in her concert repertoire. Considering the massive success of Amazing Grace though, I think she’d be just fine singing an entire gospel number and letting it stand alone. No fusion needed. Or let’s see, how can I phrase this lyrically? Ah yes, Let It Be.
All the same, there is a reason Aretha is the Queen. A darn good reason. And whether it’s pumping out soul or preaching up gospel, the living legend totally gets my R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Libra Nicole Boyd, PhD is a musician, award-winning author, gospel music aficionado, and the founder and editor of Gospel Music Fever™. Her commitment to journalistic integrity includes bringing you reliable gospel music content that uplifts and advances the art form. Libra is presently working on several scholarly projects about gospel music in the media as well as gospel music in social movements.