Stunned and somewhat paralyzed by the headline, “Aretha Franklin dead at 76,” it was so to the point that its directness seemed cold at first. Then I thought, what else could one say after hearing the news? I looked at the calendar. It was August 16.
My mind seemed to be flooded with thoughts and memories colliding somewhere in my hypothalamus causing a slight rise in perspiration. You know – the kind you get when startled. Simultaneously, there was what felt like another collision in my visual cortex of belief and disbelief as those thoughts and memories raced around in my brain. After a few moments, the impact left my head swimming. Yet, my heart trumped my brain in reaction as a wave of sadness graced me from head to foot and splashed tears against my face.
As I sat motionless for a few minutes, which always seems like an eternity, I remembered what happened yesterday, August 15, 2018, the day before she passed. I was driving to midtown Atlanta for my annual ophthalmic exam. No music on the radio, no CD in the player, no smart car pre-programmed selections. Just battling the congestion of early-afternoon traffic on the interstate as if in the City of Angels; and street traffic, as if in the Big Apple. Totally, and ironically, seemingly just out-of-the-blue, I started singing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” A mood of melancholy surpassed the swift traffic on I-85 South as I bellowed my chorus rendition, substituting my college nickname. Instead of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, take care of TCB,” it was “take care of (add an extra beat) BC.” The year was 1967. I was a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College. The song was released eight days after my twentieth birthday on the red and black Atlantic label. My dorm room was on the corner of the third floor of Westlands. Taking a study break with the windows fully open, I spun the little black plastic on my record player. It was at that very moment that I purposed to memorize the song. I instantly became the lead AND the backup with my yellow number 2 pencil-microphone. The chorus inspired dancing and leaping across the room. The volume on “H” paired with me singing loudly made it somewhat difficult to hear a standard knock on the door. The knocker persisted. That was the day I became aware that I was directly over the Dean’s office. The messenger was her assistant, sternly stating (without any hope of a smile) that the Dean requested I change songs, lower the volume and dance in my socks, because after an hour, it had become a “distraction.” Of course, I obliged. By then, I was ready to stop and resume studies, anyway. I made an appointment to apologize to Dean Mattfeld (Jacqueline) in her office a few days later. I was relieved she could now laugh about it and we became personally acquainted.
Oh, we had heard the song before when Otis Redding released it in 1965 – and it was good. His story is that of a man pleading to his woman, giving her anything she wants, even if she does him wrong, as long as he gets her respect. But Oh My Goodness – Aretha transformed it, making it her own. A few new lyrics changed the essence of the song’s story. I often wondered if it was her reply to Otis because her story was the opposite of his. She made a declaration of a confident and purposed woman who has everything her man wants, would never do her man wrong, and demands respect. The emphasis is compelling as she spells out the R E S P E C T chorus; emphasized by the backup refrain “sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me…” And what is absolutely glorious about her rendition is that she was a bold, young “Negro” woman in her mid-twenties, well-coiffed by a stylish Afro! As was popular then, the appropriate slang response would have been “Can you dig it?”
Then people sang it as if it were their own because the timing was socially and culturally on point. Filling the airwaves in the midst of three movements, it became the signature song of Aretha’s rhythm n’ blues career; it echoed not only the feminine battle cry for respect in equal rights; it screamed the desire of African-Americans, becoming the new anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, second to “We Shall Overcome.” Beyond the lyrics, demanding respect (not asking politely or begging/pleading), the rhythm and the melody were unusually in sync and mutually supportive so that the synergy exploded in a way that few songs can. The reason is simple. The lyrics, rhythm and melody had the voice of Aretha that ignited the atmosphere…bouncing off of radio waves, leaping off of 45s and bursting out of the lungs of those who could carry a tune and those who could not. It didn’t matter because the song moved ya’. It registered personally in your deepest inners past the components of your soul because it was too big for the heart and mind. It moved further in – to your spirit and then leaped into your bones, moving ya on to the dance floor. All the while, singing those lyrics – loudly – with Aretha.
Many a weekend, I witnessed all of that at college mixers along the Eastern seaboard between New Jersey and Massachusetts. In particular was “Spook Weekend,” an annual occurrence initiated by Black students at Yale in 1964, bringing hundreds of Black students together, providing a platform to socialize and discuss topics reaching far beyond collegiate issues. The dance floor, with feet, claps and snaps in synchronized rhythm would move and chant with one voice. It was at one of these mixers that we commenced the weekend with Aretha’s “Respect.” For me, and for others, perhaps all of us, the song had multiple meaning and was therefore, a layered experience of a powerful moment in time.
During the summer of 1968, while on tour with a select choral group from the college, we wanted to go out immediately following a concert at the University of Cologne in Germany. We had two uniforms: a conservative and a more colorful short, aqua with short bell sleeves. Thirty-three chaperoned college girls, all in aqua dresses, entered a pub filled with young locals and American soldiers from a nearby Army base. The initial shock of this invading mirage soon turned into an evening of fun. One of the girls had whispered a tale that was announced from the bandstand over the microphone that an “American singer” was in the group and could Bonnyeclaire Smith join the band for a selection. Surprised and embarrassed, I made my way up, scanning the crowd, searching for the chaperone’s approval. And you’ve no doubt guessed that the request was Aretha’s “Respect.” It was an honor and all that practice in the dorm room paid off.
There was another occasion when that song bellowed from my lungs. I became quite angry with my widowed mother for not allowing me to accept offers from two American record labels in my freshman year. I remember thinking: Surely, if my dad were alive he could see how much this meant to me and talk reason with her. But the buck stopped with her. When I heard that several Columbia med students had a college-mixer band and needed a female vocalist, I jumped at the chance to audition. Built into the repertoire were a few of Aretha’s songs, including… you guessed it, “Respect!” Ironically, before I left for college, my mother gave me “the talk.” Nooo, not that one, the other one about responsibility. It was short and to the point. “Your name is Bonnyeclaire Smith. Carry it well because your name is who you are.” Then she stood up, and while walking out of the room, “Besides, with a name like yours, if I hear anything, it will most probably be true.” Stunned at the brevity and content, I sat a while. Well, lo and behold, would you ever guess what happened? February 1967 Glamour magazine published a feature article on the band, The Plague, in the College Corner section. It was a regional article to be published in New England. I wasn’t at all worried about my mother’s discovery until I received a phone call with her calling me by my full birth name. I stood in the dorm hall’s wooden phone booth and closed the folding doors. She exclaimed, “What in the world are you doing singing with a band, and with white boys? Do you know how dangerous this is? What were you thinking – rather, Why weren’t you thinking? What kind of name is that for a band? Bonnyeclaire Smith, you get yourself out of that band right now and focus on your studies. …” She went on and on for a small eternity during which I discovered I could thank family friend Jane Brown for calling her to make sure she read the issue. I had been curious as to how she found out. It never occurred to me that regional interest in the southeast would apply because my hometown was Birmingham, Alabama. There it was – my name, in print, in Glamour magazine, spelled correctly with a full PR picture of the band. H’mmmm. A fresh lesson on questions you should know to ask. Lesson over, apology extended, my decision to leave the band or stay remained. As it turned out, while The Plaque had potential, the demands of medical school increased for Peter, Roger and Mike; Bob began his dissertation, and my vocal coach, who sounded like she knew my mother, encouraged me to stop.
I didn’t feel like chatting when I read the headline today about Aretha, though I did text my three children. That need not be a curiosity. In Kansas City on the Missouri side, where we lived before I was transferred to Atlanta, a sort of experiment was initiated. Blue Ridge Mall had a public recording studio with thousands of selections. Sort of like karaoke in a sound booth mimicking a real studio where people could “have their moment.” One day, we did just that, and guess what song we unanimously chose? Yep, you guessed it, “R E S P E C T,” and yes, I did add my personal ending, “take care of BC.” But out of respect for Aretha and my children, I waited for the last chorus, at the end, during the fade.
In my prime and now, not so much, I never professed to equal Aretha (not even in my dreams). Singing her songs was a celebration of her and her talents: her message, her voice and her performance delivery. Today, and in the coming days, I’ll probably be humming and singing my other favorites: “Think,” “Dr. Feelgood” and “Natural Woman.” After I finish writing, I’ll probably look through my records, and once again, sing-a-long and, reaching back in time, drawing on memories of mixers and the dorm room, move to the steps of the Bop, the Slop, Hitchhike and a little Soul Train line. Maybe I can find a yellow number 2 pencil. I’m not a groupie or avid concert-goer. So, although I’ve never heard Aretha sing in person, I feel like I have. Last summer, I came close. Illness demanded she cancel a concert at Martha’s Vineyard.
I imagine social media is testing the capacity of the databases with posts. Radio waves may sound like an underwater choir from thousands of stations playing different recordings as the news trails the international clock as the earth turns this next twenty-four hours. There are soooo many songs to play, and so many things to say about this phenomenal legend. I imagine many will quote the eloquent words of President Obama from her 2015 performance of “A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors:
“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R & B, rock and roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. American history wells up when Aretha sings.”
Ahhhhh, Aretha. Aretha Louise Franklin. The “Queen of Soul.” Not just for Blacks. Not just for Americans. She was, is and will forever be “THE” Queen of Soul, the world over. As far as I know, I never heard any rumors about her ego. I don’t recall headlines about disorderly conduct. She was a lady. She was on a mission to share her talent. Of my favorite four, I will say she made me “feel good,” like “a natural woman” and she sure made me ”think” and not only command “respect,” but give it! I’ll bet heaven is rocking just about now. Can you imagine the reception of other royals: The King of Soul, The King of Rhythm and Blues, The King of Pop, just to name a few? We salute you and we will miss you, and we are so grateful for the gift of your voice that you have left with us. Rest in peace, beloved, admired and respected Aretha. You get all the R-E-S-P-E-C-T!