It almost ruined my Christmas holiday. It came over the Internet first (naturally), then the radio, then the television news that Aretha Franklin had died. As we know now, that report was erroneous.
The “Queen of Soul” not only survived, but now appears in those hilarious Snickers commercials about “divas.”
March 25 will be her 69th birthday and I hope she will live to celebrate it. It is way too early to lose a natural treasure.
How do we count the ways?
She was the first woman (no surprise) to be elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In December 2008, Rolling Stone magazine named her the “greatest singer of all time.” She rocked at least several million house parties. I know she rocked mine.
If you were caught, alone at a red light singing at the top of your weak little voice, chances are excellent that it was an Aretha song on the sound system.
Even guys screamed along with “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” and “I Never Loved a Man.” Otis Redding gave her the song “Respect” and she made it even bigger. “Think” was another one that got everyone screaming along.
But my favorite was “Chain of Fools.” Years later, Blue Eyes admitted that she knew I was “the one” (go figure) when I was yelling along with “Chain of Fools” while driving back from Sugarloaf.
When Rolling Stone christened Aretha as the best singer, ever, they had singer Mary J. Blige do the honors. She said, “You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made.” And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason women want to sing.
As a child, I used to listen to Aretha’s music because my mom played “Do Right Woman” and “Ain’t No Way” every single day. I would see my mother cry when she listened to those songs, and I’d cry too. I look at Aretha and think, “I need a piece of that. Whatever that is.”
Want the numbers? Aretha has had 20 No. 1 singles on Billboard and 45 Top 40 songs. She has 14 million-selling singles, the most of any female. She had 10 hit R&B albums, also the most for any woman. She got to sing at Barack Obama’s inauguration. Her distinctive hat ended up at the Smithsonian.
Who else would he ask?
She was born in a two-room house in Memphis, moved to Buffalo then Detroit. She started singing in her father’s Baptist church, learned piano by ear and was singing solos before she was a teenager. Gospel singers Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward were visitors to the church and house and helped Aretha along the way.
Her first son was born when she was 13. Her second son came along when she was 16.
She cut her first gospel album “Songs of Faith” when she was 14. She turned down Motown, then Sam Cooke and RCA records to sign with Columbia. In 1960, her single “Today I Sung The Blues,” became an R&B hit. The first Top 40 hit was “Rock-a-bye Your Baby.”
In 1967, she moved to Atlantic Records, a company that had the very good sense to team her with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section for “I Never Loved a Man,” then “Respect.”
Aretha Franklin was off and running.
In 1980, she stole the movie “Blues Brothers” with her diner presentation of “Think.”
I know you are wondering. The others in Rolling Stone’s top ten singers were Ray Charles, Elvis, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and, of course, James Brown.
In an investigation of my cherished iPod, I find that a mere nine of the 2,566 songs are by Aretha Franklin. I must change that forthwith.
Naturally, “Chain of Fools” is on the iPod. I play that all the time.
Early happy birthday, Aretha. And thank you.
Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at