Aretha Franklin has passed. She died at 76 and the world has lost one more icon. I had heard her anthemic Respect and many of her early hits on the radio but she really clicked when I saw her with George Michael. That voice was there, that soaring, clear sound that made you stop and listen. I think I needed the pop reference brought by George Michael to pay attention to a singer that had been instrumental to define a whole generation, refine a sound and serve as an inspiration to so many.
As a gayling, music was always present. From my first records to my immersion in the Top 40 to my leaving radio for good and curating my own playlists, music has always been instrumental to my personal expression. I can't remember a time when there was not music in my life. And I have gravitated to the big voices, of course, because those are the ones that touch us deeply.
Aretha is one of my favorite singers. Most of my favorite vocalists are female (Sarah, Billie, Ella, Whitney, Amy, Annie) but Aretha I've seen live. And I'm a better person for it. I went to see her in Ravinia, two years ago. It was an almost unplanned trip, something that came to be because the weather was fantastic and I had been there listening to classical music while sitting on a blanket at the park and I liked the experience. So going back for more was a no-brainer.
Then Aretha was on the schedule and having read about her not touring much, I decided it was then or never that I was gonna go see her. And I went. And boy did it pay. Ravinia, if you're not familiar with it, is a big park where you can enjoy music events on the lawn or on a small open auditorium. They bring all kinds of musical acts, from Dolly Parton to Fleetwood Mac to John Legend and offer you awesome summer evenings. It's takes awhile to get there (take the Metra or get on the Red Line and then the Yellow Line and you're there) but it's worth it.
When Aretha's show opened, I was immediately hooked. This is over-seventy-Aretha, mind you. This was not Lady Gaga wowing me with her Oh LaLa. This was the Queen of Soul. Demure, mature. Aretha was in a gown, with mid-length locks framing her face and a full orchestra. Then she opened her mouth and that was it. The songs flowed. The sass peaked. The voice soared. It's incredible how much of that collective memory we all have can be triggered by a few verses (Respect, Do Right Man, Think, Freeway of Love, A Rose is still a Rose). For someone with such a catalogue and such a range, I can imagine how difficult it is to choose what to sing. But boy did she sing. I was clapping, and dancing, and whooping and smiling the whole time. Even when she sat at the piano and did some slow numbers, I was still snapping my fingers and singing the little snippets of the songs I remembered. And I couldn't stop smiling.
And then it was over. But she stayed with me. Now, when I listen to her records (records as in LPs, mind you) I can relate the crisp studio sound to that night at Ravinia. And I clap, and dance and whoop. And Aretha is alive. Talent like hers never dies.
So the same way I listen to Billie and Ella and Whitney and Amy now I will listen to Aretha. They're all gone. But they'll always be with us. As long as there's a record player, or a CD player or an iPod they'll always be here. Because those voices cannot be silenced. Because those voices reach inside us and pull out feelings and thoughts and laughs and joy. I'm thankful I got to see her live. I'm glad I decided that Ravinia was the place to be that night. And now, every time that turntable starts spinning and I hear that 'What you want', I jump up and dance.