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The Aretha Dialogue

Photo: Atlantic Records.

It wasn’t an emotive voice.

Wait. Stop there. The “Queen of Soul”? What’s “emotive” mean?

“Able to arouse intense emotion”

Respect” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” Shall I go on?

Maybe I mean it could arouse emotion but didn’t … convey it. Or contain it.

I’m listening.

Compare what she did to Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday. For all of them, there’s a sense – almost note by note – of a range of feeling. Listen to Aretha cover Dinah (there’s a whole album), and it’s an amazing voice in its range and its dynamics, but there’s none of the sadness, the sense of being surprised by happiness or overwhelmed by love.

She was a different kind of singer. Different times, too.

Absolutely. But isolate her voice on almost anything she’s recorded, and it isn’t …. for lack of a better word, “emotive.” Nina groans and growls and gets breathy like a child. Billie slings from the hip.

Part of the difference is Aretha never sounds like a victim. Or not often. Part of what we hear in those others is the sound of a woman surviving abuse. She doesn’t go there.

That’s part of it for sure. So where does she go? “Respect”: signature tune. From the opening horn riff and twangy country guitar, we know we got a beat. The arrangement’s incredibly strong. She sets her voice way up high from the start. Its inflection is mostly aimed towards confidence. She will – in the astonishing break – spell it out for us: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Within the machinery of the arrangement, she’s lead singer, but lead singer might best translate as punctuator. She bangs off the back-up singers; she slides this and that in the slot between the beats. What she doesn’t do is emote.

Yea, but the song! The song emotes. You can’t sit still.

True that. I’m trying to get at what she did, what her voice did. Maybe this helps: I’ve been re-reading John Berger on Picasso. And he makes the point that Picasso was a prodigy. From his teenage years, he was an acknowledged master or master-to-be. And that affects his later work. Because there isn’t that slow apprenticeship, that accumulated learning. You’re treated like an adult almost from the start. Listen to the early gospel recordings of Aretha, when she was fourteen, and you hear exactly that. “Precious Lord,” sung in her father, C.L. Franklin’s church. She had the tools early. She can’t possibly know the emotions yet, but she can make the sounds that equal the emotions. It’s almost a technical exercise.

I give you Mozart. Or Stevie Wonder.

But she was never primarily a composer like those two. She wrote some great songs, but she was more an interpretive artist, right? I think it’s a different ballpark. She’d take a song like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and she’d find stuff that the writers, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, maybe never knew was in it.

Which makes it less hers? I don’t think so.

Oh, it’s hers. But how’s she do that? First, she pitches the opening statement in a low register to get the feel of being “uninspired.” Then playing off the back-up singers, she climbs to the chorus, to where “you” make her feel natural. There’s emotion in her voice when she says “I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” but just enough to make you realize it isn’t elsewhere. What’s carrying the song is the way she structures the chorus climb. That, more than feeling in her voice, provides the release — like suddenly coming out on an open vista.

It makes us, listening, feel … natural. Whatever that means. It does what the songwriters wanted.

I know what natural doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean “instinctual.” It doesn’t mean “easy.”

That’s always the danger, right? Ted Williams studied hitting, but Willie Mays was a natural. Etc. etc.

Yep. There’s an acute musical intelligence behind her voice, her piano playing, her arrangements, each choice she made. “Think.” Right? She did write that one. And from the stuttering opening piano chords into the deep groove, it’s about using your brain. It’s insistent about that. And maybe because her voice isn’t bent-note/deep growl emotional, it’s perfect. Even when she’s admitting “You need me, and I need you,” there’s a kind of independent pride to it. Her voice is finger-pointing, declarative. The song’s almost a chant. A chant that rises to the call of “Freedom!” – like that’s where thinking leads.

Dancing’s an enormous part of it. I don’t think you can overestimate that. All these songs go straight to the hips. Dancing equals thinking equals freedom.

Amen. It’s the same dynamic as gospel. The child prodigy keeps coming back to it. In gospel, the road led to the Spirit, but the steps are the same.

“Spirit in the Dark”

Exactly! Which she wrote and, as she performs it, might almost be her fourteen-year-old self warming the congregation before her father’s sermon. “Are you getting the spirit?” Yes, we are, and we get it through the instrument of her voice within that amazing setting: the “hoo-hoos” of the back-up singers, the slip of the organ, the drums knocking at the door. Song builds from just her and piano at slow tempo through mid-tempo groove to the classic gospel release where things go double time, and we enter the dark, meet the spirit. It’s joyful. It’s almost a clinical dissection of how joy works.

OK, you can take it apart like that if you want. But in the end, isn’t her voice, her piano playing, her sense of where and how to punctuate the melody, really her sense of who she is and we are? Aren’t they part of a larger whole, a back and forth?

A community? A dialogue?

Well, finally.