Name a great female singer, any great female singer, and each and every one of them will pale in comparison to Aretha Franklin. They all have their moments of greatness, to be sure. They are all talented within their own rights, possessing style and personality that lets their individuality shine. But none were ever as consistently great as ‘Retha. The proper definition of the word awesome is inspiring awe, that feeling of vast wonderment in the universe and whatever spirit moves you. Aretha Franklin was awesome.
I’m not going to try to explain why. Yes, she had natural talent that was honed by training in gospel choirs and production studios. Yes, she had charisma and grace and the intelligence to change her style with the times. Yes, she was physically beautiful. But there was something else there, something ineffable and intangible. Something in her eyes that told you whatever she felt when she was singing was profound and deep and metaphysical. Supernatural, if you will. It’s the same thing that makes Eric Clapton such an unbelievable guitar player, despite being less technically skilled than many others. There is something that she touches with her voice that almost no other singer of any gender will ever be able to get close to touching.
Many tributes to Aretha will choose “Respect” or “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” or even “Natural Woman.” I’ll just leave with this, possibly my favorite of hers. It was just as much about respect for yourself and your fellow human beings as “Respect,” but with a focus not just on the relationship between men and women, but that between blacks and whites. I only wish it weren’t still relevant. After all, Aretha isn’t here to knock some sense into our sorry asses anymore.
You might only remember Al Jarreau if you are a person of a certain age or if you were a huge Moonlighting fan. A consummate singer and performer, Jarreau had pretty much dropped out of the spotlight in the last couple of decades. In fact, I think the last pop culture hit he had was the theme to Moonlighting. At 76, Mr. Jarreau has moved on to the next plane of existence.
Take a minute to familiarize yourself with Mr. Jarreau if you don’t already know his work. He was originally a Jazz singer, but he crossed into so many genres that he was impossible to pigeonhole. And wow, was he smooth. No. Not just smooth. Al Jarreau was smooooooooooth. His voice was silky and pure and clean. There were no missed notes, no extraneous flourishes, no gratuitous posturing. There was just music, and it was good.
Now all the smooth leaves no room for rough edges, which means Jarreau was never quite to my taste. But this, singing his 1981 hit “We’re in This Love Together” is how I will always remember him. Another great voice is just a memory, but it’s a pretty fine one.
I just read in my newest Rolling Stone that singer Sharon Jones’ cancer has returned and spread. Her current prognosis is not good. Having been dealing with my mother’s latest illness, I’m especially sensitive to these kinds of stories. While I’m not exactly a super fan, I think Jones is an extraordinary singer and performer. And it breaks my heart to think of all that marvelous talent being cut down so quickly.
Like the late great Warren Zevon, Jones is not taking her diagnosis lying down. She is working, with a new album almost completed. I’m looking forward to hearing it. But in the meantime, let’s celebrate her while she is still hear. And let’s enjoy this music. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings really put the soul in Soul Music.
I make no promises about the future availability of any Prince clips I find and use. I suspect this video won’t be there in a week. And as much as I hate looking over my old posts and seeing the video I chose unavailable, I just want to share.
Prince loved women. That really wasn’t much of a secret. He apparently really liked sex, too, although his music became less risqué after he became a Jehovah’s Witness. He also disavowed a lot of his earlier, sexier songs, which was a damn shame, because they weren’t just songs about sex. Prince was probably the most sex-positive musician out there. It wasn’t hateful and misogynistic when Prince sang about a woman’s sexuality or body; it was reverential and joyful. He really, really loved women.
Which makes “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” one of the most heartfelt songs Prince ever made. He wrote it for his first wife, Mayte Garcia, but in a way, it was for every woman. And it doesn’t matter who you are–gay or straight, young or old, whatever–if you’re a woman and you hear this song, for just a few minutes, you feel like the most beautiful woman in the world.
It seems really weird to write this post. Not just because Prince has left this plane of existence at only 57. Not just because this is the most surreal year in the music business, and it’s only April. (It’s going to get worse. I just have this terrible feeling.) But because I am posting about the loss of this brilliant, brilliant man and I am not posting a clip of him.
Prince was a paranoid, controlling son of bitch. I don’t blame him for it; he knew that if he was going to make money off of his artistry, he was going to have to hold a tight rein on when and how it got disseminated. I’m pretty darn okay with that. But his control was such that he didn’t even post his own videos on YouTube, much less let someone else post them. His online musical presence is pretty much nil. He designed it that way. If you wanted Prince’s music, you had to pay him. Like I said, I’m okay with that. But it makes paying tribute to him that much harder.
Prince was a true original. He made music unlike anyone else. In his music, you could hear echoes of influences, genre-bending styles, and an absolute disregard for what anyone else but Prince thought about pretty much anything. He understood the world from a distinct perspective. You could get glimpses of it in songs like “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Sign O’ the Times.” You could hear it in the sexy playfulness of “Little Red Corvette” and “Raspberry Beret.” You could see it in his smile and sideways glances at the camera in his music videos, or in his strut and swagger onstage. But you never would get the full picture. Prince managed to be something very, very few celebrities and artists ever pull off convincingly. He was an enigma.
I’m still in shock. After losing Bowie and so many others this year, it’s just kind of numbing. When I go home in a few hours, I’m going to queue up some Prince on my iPod, and I’m probably going to cry then. Because even though I did not know him–almost nobody really did, I think–losing Prince today still hurts. He was my generation’s funky master of all trades, jack of none. He belongs to us even though he did his best to keep his distance. That’s why I chose this cover of one of his songs by Cyndi Lauper. Not just because it was one of the very few Prince-related songs I could actually find. But because it states what I’m feeling right now. “I don’t care, ’cause I love you baby, that’s no lie. I love you more than I did when you were mine.”
I’ve had this song popping in and out of my head for a couple days now. I don’t really know why, but as I’ve previously stated, I don’t know why half the things that pop into my head are there. I just kind of roll with it.
Well, okay. I don’t really “roll” with anything. I am a bundle of anxiety and worry most of the time. Between my hypochondria, what I’m pretty sure is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and a really excellent imagination, it’s a wonder I can get any sleep at night. One of my goals in life is to stop the hamster wheel inside my head and get some freakin’ peace. It’s not as simple as relaxing or just not worrying about stuff until something happens, like many people have advised. (It’s good advice; it just doesn’t apply to me.) I often can’t turn off the thoughts that are bothering me so much. I have to find a way to distract myself. It’s one reason why I play dumb games on the Internet so much. Music helps sometimes, but not always, since music is so tied to my emotions and memories. Sometimes that’s exactly what I’m trying to escape.
Songs like this are good for me, though. Catchy, fun, not associated with anything else in my life. I remember hearing this in Animal House; I think Stephen Bishop may have even covered it for the soundtrack (or not. . . I’d look it up, but I don’t really care that much). Yes, it’s a metaphor for sex. A significant portion of popular music is a metaphor for sex. It’s one of those primal things that virtually anyone can connect with on some level. This is distraction. Just what I need when my brain gets kind of funny.
To say that this is all beginning to sound like a broken record is much too apt a comparison. The music industry has once again been robbed of one of its visionary talents. Earth, Wind, & Fire co-founder Maurice White has died at 74 as a result of his long fight with Parkinson’s. It’s like the whole world has just become one long broken record.
If I feel like dancing, Earth, Wind, & Fire is always on the playlist. They were one of the best and most successful R & B groups ever, and Maurice White was a large part of that success. He was their leader in every sense of the word, from songwriting to performing to producing. When his illness prevented him from performing with the group any longer, he continued to guide EWF from the sidelines, making sure that his group never strayed from his vision. He also produced a number of other artists and had some solo performing success.
What really gets me, besides the loss of another artist I enjoyed and admired, besides the grief of another family that I understand only too well, is the fact that this won’t nearly be the end of our losses as fans and listeners. All these great and influential artists from the 60s and 70s are getting older, and as Michael Wilbon of ESPN notes, Father Time is undefeated. We’ll always have the music these people have made. My beliefs tell me that no one is ever really gone; their existence is simply moved to another plane. But that doesn’t make any of this feel any better on this plane of existence. It still hurts. In this case, the only way to deal with the pain is to keep on dancing.
I think Maurice would like that.