The whole world and her husband are writing about Aretha Franklin right now, and I’m going to say a quick something about her too because yesterday’s announcement that she's no longer with us brought me about as close as I am ever likely to get to a religious experience. On hearing the news, my emotions went into a spin-cycle. One moment, I was letting out a sad little sigh and a second later I was just nodding my head in awe. Because what a life she had! And what a remarkable human being she was! Twice a mum by the age of 16 and a young black woman in a white man’s world, the teenage Aretha could surely never have guessed the impact that she was going to make on millions of people all over the globe – including, me, in my bedroom in Felixstowe in the 1980s. With my clock-radio tuned to Laser 558, an offshore pirate radio station, I came to know and love all her famous Atlantic Records hits of the late 60s.
Back then, I remember thinking that those records - 'Respect', 'I say a Little Prayer', 'Chain of Fools', 'Rock Steady' - sounded amazing. So what if they were already approaching twenty years old?
And the magic is that they always will sound amazing. There’s nothing at all on them to date. Just timelessly brilliant musicians, perfect backing singers and Aretha’s strong, heart-tugging and unmistakable voice.
Years later, my friend Kirsty and I had fun on the Cardiff club and bar scene as a couple of ‘Girl DJs’. We called ourselves Barabajagal and we described our night as ‘Beat Soul Funk of the late 60s and early 70s.’ To begin with, we didn’t have many records – and I am, of course, talking about your actual physical LP RECORDS which played on the WHEELS OF STEEL, not some abstract digital download - so we mostly just alternated between Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder and hoped no one would notice. And if they did, nobody seemed to care. Because, honestly, if you start off with ‘Rock Steady’ and then crossfade into ‘Superstition’, and then switch back again to Aretha and ‘You’ve Got the Sweetest Smile and the Funkiest Style,’ you’re already off to an absolute flyer. Who but a fool could possibly feel short-changed?
Some time later still, I started writing books for teenagers and I squeezed music – and Aretha – into the plots whenever I could. She’s there in the background of Lottie Biggs is Not Desperate and she’s a crucial part of Griff and Dylan’s healing process in The Nearest Faraway Place. I wouldn’t ordinarily quote myself but in this instance, I’m going to give myself a special pass because I can’t sum up the power of Aretha Franklin’s voice any better than I did as Dylan, the narrator of that book.
'I stood completely still and listened in breathless wonder as Aretha sang. I’d never heard anyone like her. She had a voice that was strong enough and dramatic enough and warm enough to wake the dead.'
I must have written those words about three years ago and they were never fiction - only ever a candid expression of what I heard through my clock-radio as a teenager and have always heard ever since. Aretha Franklin was up there on her own. A force of nature. A natural woman.
Thank you, Aretha x