Friday, March 25, 2005

Billy notes Aretha Franklin for Women's History Month

Billy: Today is Aretha Franklin's 63rd birthday and it being Women's History Month, I think she deserves a shout out.

Here's what always stands out for me about Aretha Franklin: her singing and her piano playing.
No one sings like Aretha. She's got a really good range but you might not notice because she's always using her voice to serve the song and not to upstage it the way so many musical divas do.

But if you listen to something that's arranged for her upper register and something that's arranged for her lower register, you realize quickly that she could go toe to toe in vocal acrobatics with Mariah [Carey] or Whitney [Houston] if she so wanted. But it's not about that when she sings because it is just about the song and how she can reach you with it & move you with it.

"Sweet Bitter Love" is a perfect example of that. She can just blow you away with that song when she lays out is so simple and lets you hear the emotions in that song.

And with her voice she creates her own melody on top of the melody of the song. It's this improv that comes in an unexpected place and can be missed as she halves the beat or goes into double-time or messes with the time signature in a way that only her genius can lead her to.

Which is what I like about her piano playing because those moments with her voice are real similar to what she does when she sits down at the piano and finds a spot in the song that she builds on - a spot you didn't quite hear before if someone else did the song or, if it's a new song, a spot that you could have missed if she didn't emphasize it. When she sits down at the piano (which isn't that often as the years have gone by) she can take even the weakest song that you heard too many times by other people and invest something new in it by finding that spot that everyone else just passed over but she's going to stop a moment and explore it.

That's what makes her an original as a piano player or as a singer.

She's racked up the hits over her long career and everyone knows 'em from "Respect" to "A Rose Is Still A Rose." But there are moments on her best albums where you find a song you never heard on the radio and just realize how great a singer she is. Yeah she is amazing on "Chain of Fools" but she's even more amazing on a little known track off Aretha called "Look to the Rainbow." Or take her cover of "Let It Be" which a lot of people have done since the Beatles but only Aretha really finds the point of "there will be an answer" and when you hear her sing her version, you really get that line.

That gift is why she can remake "I Say a Little Prayer" and still have something to offer to the song or "Brand New Me" which Dusty Springfield did to perfection but when Aretha does her version, she creates her own space and her own right to the song by finding that part everyone else just sang through and finding a way to draw your attention to it.

Her last CD was So Damn Happy and off that one the moment of genius is "Falling Out of Love."

She was interviewed by Tavis Smiley last year and talking about the new album she was recording which is all duets and I'm looking forward to hearing that one like I do with each new one. Sometimes I find a strong CD all the way through, sometimes I just find a gem or two.
But she's got a track record that's now a legacy and she can still amaze.

In 1998, Time Magazine picked her as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. I'll close by quoting from that story.

Her reign has been long. Born in 1942 in Memphis, Tenn., she started recording when she was just 14. Since then, she has had 20 No. 1 R. and B. hits and won 17 Grammys. Her breakthrough album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967), was a Top 40 smash. Three decades later, after Motown, after disco, after the Macarena, after innumerable musical trendlets and one-hit wonders, Franklin's newest album, her critically acclaimed A Rose Is Still a Rose (1998), is another Top 40 smash. Although her output has sometimes been tagged (unfairly, for the most part) as erratic, she has had a major album in every decade of her career, including Amazing Grace (1972) and Who's Zoomin' Who? (1985).
Her reign has been storied. She sang at Martin Luther King's funeral and at William Jefferson Clinton's Inaugural gala. She has worked with Carole King and Puff Daddy. The Michigan legislature once declared her voice to be one of the state's natural resources.

[Note: The quote is from "The Queen of Soul reigns supreme with a heavenly voice and terrestrial passion" written by Christopher John Farley. Correction added 3-27-05: Aretha Franklin was in the hospital last year, not this year. That was my mistake and didn't appear in Billy's remarks, only my note here at the bottom. My apologies.]