In the end, we’re left with the music: those luminous gospel recordings she made as a young teenager, still under her father’s wing; the halting, if promising, cocktail-blues recordings from the early sixties; those earth-shaking singles and albums she recorded for Atlantic between 1967 and 1973, when the world seemed to spin on her axis. The forays into disco and standards, the comebacks and movie cameos she wandered through in the last forty years, some off-kilter, some wonderful, were all completely beside the point. You get to part the Red Sea only once. Everything after is just … after.
When she finally broke through, in 1967, she was a powerhouse and seemed unstoppable. She made salvation sexy and sexuality holy; she made the radio a bigger, wilder, more inclusive place, and she made the whole world dance to her radio.
And it wasn’t just her voice. Her keyboard playing was formidable, and the piano intros to “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Don’t Play That Song” take the history of popular music and shake it by the scruff of the neck before turning it loose.
As a musician friend told me the morning her death was announced, “Her playing is thirty percent jazz, fifty percent gospel, and seventy-five percent just plain Aretha. And if those numbers don’t add up, that’s just the way it goes. Aretha was bigger than math.”
I called another friend who played alto saxophone with her in the early eighties, when he was just starting out. He said:
I was invisible. She had a really mean black rhythm section, guys that were rude, not personally but musically. And then she had a few kids she picked up along the way. And she didn’t pay us much notice, so we could take in everything.
We were playing these big venues, and she’d be backstage with a whole entourage, all these kids, her own kids, along with nieces and nephews and cousins, most of them dressed up in Sunday clothes, shined and pressed. But it always happened: they’d start acting out and running wild, and Aretha would just start singing to them and whooping and hollering, dancing all around with them with all the force of her voice and her spirit and her whole personality. I thought, Man, she’s bringing the whole performance with her backstage! And then I realized it was the other way around. When she went onstage, she just brought her whole life along with her. There was no divide. That’s who she was. It was all there, nothing held back.
Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.