Back in the olden days, when adults wouldn’t have been caught dead going out on the town in a backward baseball cap or yoga pants, Aretha Franklin was one of the many legendary performers who played the Baby Grand, a nightclub here in Canton, Ohio.
Franklin was not the megastar she would become. My aunt and my late mother met her, recalling that she was gracious, even inviting them to her dressing room after her show.
Last week, 2018 continued cutting a swath, as Franklin died on the same date Elvis did. And, like Elvis, no matter where you go in the world, her voice is synonymous with America: Our youthfulness, our optimism and our swagger.
Because she sang for presidents, popes and kings, her story reminds us of the endless possibilities this country offers to talented people who have the drive. You didn’t even need to understand English to recognize her voice because no one else sounded like her. No one.
Because we’re only 242 years old, America’s wealth is not found in ancient titles and crowns. It is in our ingenuity, our belief that we can always do better. It’s found in our brash willingness to try what no one else would dare.
Our identity, our true treasure, is found in our arts. Every performance by Aretha Franklin was a master class in blues, gospel, jazz and soul — genres that sprang from American soil.
She showed us how to use our voice and talent to support those quintessentially American principles of justice and equality. Her music was the soundtrack of an era filled with upheaval and hope. She risked her career through her public support of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a time when he was viewed as a problem, not a prophet.
She also was an ardent supporter of Angela Davis, a political activist and black communist who was tried and acquitted of a judge’s murder in the 1970s, and who still scares some people.
It was risky even then. Today, she would be boycotted, and flayed on talk radio.
Music is a mirror
Franklin’s music was more than a body of love songs; they were a clarion call for equality; to elevate and empower womanhood. Because music is a mirror of our culture, her demand for “respect” not only still resonates, but is still very much needed. While America has changed markedly since “Respect” enthralled the world in 1967 — after all, she performed at a black president’s inaugural — it’s clear some things have not.
Last week, a woman was publicly called “that dog” by the current president of the United States. In many cases, women still make less then men for the same type of work. The necessity of a #MeToo movement makes it abundantly clear respect is still wanting.
Yet, Franklin’s own life reminds of of how much can be overcome. A black, motherless child who became a teenage parent, she had three strikes going in, yet she embodied the persistent American dream that hard work, character, and talent are the only arbiters that should matter.
Still, she knew it wasn’t the case for people who listened to her music and supported her in places like the Baby Grand, long before the rest of America did.
It was for them she sang.
As much as we might be enthralled with its pomp and circumstance, we Americans have always chafed at the idea of royalty ... with one exception: Long live the Queen.
Reach Charita M. Goshay at 330-580-8313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.