Try to imagine.
I had discovered music only the previous year --- discovered it, in the sense of getting how good it could be. I was 10.
I had been listening to pop music starting, more or less, in 1965. The Beatles, the Stones’ “Satisfaction”, Herman’s Hermit’s “Henry the Eighth”, I remember liking them, but liking them the way I liked good TV, like the Addams Family. It wasn’t ART. The next year I got into the Monkees, which was music made for my 8-year-old ears. And was perfectly consumable TV.
But in ’67 I heard “Within You Without You” and life was changed forever. This was pop music blended with ART.
I began to sleep with an AM clock radio next to my head, tuned to WFIL and WIBG. I have memories of pop music breaking into my dreams. Motown bled into the Fabs bled into plain old pop music bled into Stax-Volt. I was waking up. In the winter of 67/68 I heard Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”.
But in May of 1968, shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, there was a voice that I’ve never gotten over. And she instructed me to Think.
Think I did.
I grew up in southwestern New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia --- an RCA boy. When my parents and brother first came to this country, they lived in an apartment on Mickle St. in Camden, a short walk to RCA. My brother Bob was born when they lived in a slightly bigger apartment on Highland Ave, in Pennsauken. But by the time I came along they lived in their first house in the Haddonleigh section of Haddon Township, two towns east of Camden --- this took them about five years. But my uncle, aunt and cousin continued to live in Camden for another 15 years.
And for most of the 60s we would go into Camden on Saturday --- and by the 60s, Camden was almost entirely black. My brother and I would play with the neighborhood kids. If you had asked me what the difference was between them and us, I might have said they were black, but it wasn’t really in my awareness that there was any difference. Our house was nice, but we had so little money that all of the socioeconomic ramifications were outside my thinking.
The night Martin Luther King was murdered, we were visiting some people, and I was alone in their kitchen when I heard it on the radio. I didn’t know who he was, but I knew he was important so I went into the living room and told everybody.
And that’s when it happened --- when I became conscious that all around me, people were rightly pissed off. I would hear music sung by black people, and it suddenly occurred to me they WERE black, and I wasn’t. I would hear it differently --- as theirs, not mine.
And then came Aretha, giving voice --- joyful, and angry, and righteous voice --- to all of it. And telling me to THINK, think about what I was trying to do to her. And singing it to all of us --- FOR all of us. I didn’t personalize it, for whatever reason --- maybe being Jewish, which was only became partly normalized in the decade in which I was born, or my parents coming to the US so recently. But I got the point, instantly.
Aretha represented, to me and so many other folks, not just the righteous struggle of Dr. King and the importance of people really being what, as a child, I had naively just assumed we all were, but the sheer, explosive joy and power contained in that struggle. The Queen of Soul, the queen of our hearts. The Nation Magazine said: “Aretha Franklin – Musical Genius, Truth Teller, Freedom Fighter”.
“It was neither my intention nor my plan, but some were saying that in my voice they heard the sound of confidence and self-assurance.” –Aretha
It’s the power of music --- of her music, born in the black church, but also of music in general. Everybody can hear it, and get it, and it never found a higher expression than in Aretha Franklin. We were all under the umbrella of one color when she sang --- the color of awestruck.