Thursday, 16 August 2018


It's not surprising. Aretha Franklin did one, maybe two or three, of the greatest versions of the Star Spangled Banner I'd ever heard. My memory tells me it was in Detroit, at the Cobo Arena, before the Thomas Hearns/Dennis Andries light-heavyweight title fight, which was on ABC, for whom I was working, though I think I was watching back in London. I recall our announcer Jim Lampley calling it a world record. I found a recording of it on you tube, you can listen to it here. I thought she had a piano round her neck, which she doesn't. The piano playing is almost discordant, partly the acoustics, maybe the piano, or maybe she wanted a Monk-like effect, not pretty, but jarring. It wasn't as long as I recall, and the video cuts out before I can hear Lamps. But I did find another video, Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby, doing the anthem at the 1991 NBA All-Star Game; if you listen closely you can hear my Screensport commentary, saying it's the best version I've heard since Aretha's. And as I say, you can listen to several more great renditions.

I bring this up because it seems appropriate that we listen to Aretha do the National Anthem, because she did it more than justice, and she represented so much of the nation, and the fight of black people, the fight of women, the fight of almost everyone one step or more removed from the American Dream. And she was also part of our American Dream, the great singer with the string of hits, who took her place in the public eye seriously, even when it hurt her.

I remember playing Otis Blue when I first got a record player. The big attraction was his hit 'I've Been Loving You Too Long'. He covered Smokey's 'My Girl' brilliantly, some British band's 'Satisfaction', William Bell's 'You Don't Miss Your Water', BB King's 'Rock Me Baby' Solomon Burke's 'Down In The Valley', and three songs by the recently-killed Sam Cooke: 'Shake', 'Wonderful World' and 'A Change Is Gonna Come'. Some of those names meant nothing to me at the time, but they soon would. He also sang a song he'd written, called 'Respect'. I may have been a little to young to understand fully, but it was a a song of pleading by a man who was doing what he thought was everything for his woman, and all he wanted was some respect for that.

It was probably only a year later that Aretha Franklin's version burst out on the airways. It was a different song, a different point of view, a different delivery. This was a woman issuing a wake-up call, asking for something --not like Otis asking for something he was stunned and hurt he didn't get--she expected against expectation to get. It's one of those automatic choices when people ask for covers better than the original, not just because it is so powerfully sung, but because she pulls every ounce of pain and meaning from the song.

It was her second number one R&B chart single. The first was 'I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)' which had 'Do Right Woman, Do Right Man' as the B side. Her mainstream success with producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic records was immediate: 'Respect' was number one in the pop charts too. Look at what followed, 'Baby I Love You', '(You Make Me Feel Like ) A Natural Woman', 'Chain Of Fools', '(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone' and 'Think': all but Natural Woman (no2) were number one in the R&B charts; all were Top 10 hits in the pop charts. And all before I'd finished high school. Then Atlantic started searching for other material;  her biggest hits were covers, not just songs like 'Spanish Harlem' or the magnificent 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' and this was all before I'd finished college.

Her voice touched the soul, the spirit, almost like a physical presence. She sang with joy, even when she was
singing about pain, when that strength seemed directed at areas we all knew we might someday reach, but probably hoped we didn't. And then she would revive us with that incredible sense of life that speaks back to gospel and speaks too of the immense joy of using that gift you've brought out in yourself.

I could link you to any number of her songs, but I surely don't need to. I will remind you, though, that she sang at Barack Obama's inauguration, a moment when I felt great pride in my country. She had also sung at Bill Clinton's; he had grown up with her as I did, and knew her singing spoke to struggle, that she was an icon of civil rights as much as music, saying accept us, not just me, for what we are. And I will give you this link: to when the Obamas went to see the musical about Carole King's early years, and the songs she wrote with Gerry Goffin. King was in the audience, and when the actress playing her introduces 'Natural Woman', Aretha came out, wearing a full-length fur coat, and sat down at the piano and sang it. Watch it here and note King's surprise and joy. And watch the President of the United States moved to tears. As I was when I watched it again, and as I defy you not to be. RIP Aretha Franklin.

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