No doubt, the passing of ARETHA FRANKLIN has affected many people. The Queen of Soul sang the soundtrack to so many of our lives. But Aretha’s exit from this world has special meaning for me. I was just 11 years old when daddy came on one of his too rare visits after my parents’ divorce. Always with some records in tow with which to impress mom, my brother and me, daddy played a just-recorded record he’d produced on a new artist with the preface “This girl is fantastic. It’s too bad Columbia doesn’t know how to sell a black artist. Eventually, we’ll lose her. But that doesn’t diminish her amazing talent.” (I’m paraphrasing here). The new singer whose record he played that day was Aretha Franklin. Aretha’s passing almost felt like my father had died again.
I searched through Google for a good representative song of the 30 or so my father oversaw on Aretha. I hated them all! And I know why. Back when I was just 8 or 9, daddy came on a different rare visit to take my brother and me to Baltimore so we could watch him rehearse the Baltimore symphony. When the rehearsal was all done, daddy turned to me and asked “So whaddaya think?” My editorial commentary was quick and straight to the point: “Too much violins!” Daddy took it like a champ no doubt thinking “What does this little rock and roll snot nose really know?” He wasn’t offended.
Yesterday, as I sifted through his Aretha productions, guess what my mental commentary was with each and every track? You got it: “Too much violins!” In fact, I hadn’t thought about that trip to Baltimore for years until I dug into those old tracks on You Tube and uniformly disliked them all.
Daddy blamed Columbia for Aretha’s stagnation on the label. And while it’s true the company tried several producers none of whom made her a star, I couldn’t help but think that they all (daddy included) couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Aretha wasn’t a jazz singer. She was rhythm and blues and should have been recorded in that genre. It was only when she left Columbia and went to Atlantic Records that the executive team knew what material to record and how to market her amazing voice.
I don’t need to chronicle Aretha’s life here. There are plenty of other places to find those particulars. But in this context, it’s curious to realize that Aretha’s first manager – and the man who brought her to Columbia Records – was a straight up pimp who controlled and mismanaged her career until the day she got rid of him. No, Aretha didn’t work on the stroll (he actually plowed a lot of his stable’s earnings into Aretha’s career), but he was just one of many men who broke her heart. As JOHN HAMMOND once said in an interview…”Aretha has really bad taste in men.” When they say Aretha sang the blues, it’s for real. She didn’t just sing them. She lived them as well.
And so…another death in the extended family. And they just keep coming. Such is life – especially as you get older.
P.S. After writing this, I found a violinless Aretha track from one of the songs my father produced! I can tell the players aren’t really blues guys (session jazz players playing the blues rather). But she sounds great on a traditional 8 bar blues…and daddy just let the guys play for feel and didn’t clutter the performance with needless sweetening. Here we go…