I still can’t believe she’s gone. A year later, after the media finally stopped running clips of her demanding “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” after The New York Times’ obituary hit all her career highlights, after she appeared one last time on the cover of Rolling Stone, I still struggle with the fact that Aretha Franklin has died. How can it be when her voice, widely celebrated as music’s greatest, still moves me so?
The loss of our music idols—another one seems to fall every week—can be difficult to fully accept when a YouTube search or an iCloud “library” delivers their voices, sounding alive as ever, in an instant. So, if their music plays on, what do we really lose when a singer dies? This past year, listening to a lot of Aretha while contemplating her passing, has led me to believe that it’s the difference between a recorded song and a live performance. When you’ve seen a music icon like Aretha in concert, which I did three times, a singer becomes more than her songs.
In 1989, I attended my first Aretha concert in Philadelphia. I was beyond excited to see and hear her, even when I found out the show was a memorial to her siblings Carolyn and Cecil, who’d recently passed. I did get a little worried when she walked on stage dressed in black, then stood silently as the orchestra played a medley of songs Carolyn had written for Aretha. Two of Franklin’s entourage stood by her side, holding her up as she openly wept. But Aretha did not let the concert linger in sorrow. Handed a microphone, she broke into song, assuring us with “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher.” We stood and cheered and I walked out of that arena believing in life beyond death.
A few years later Aretha appeared in Williamsport, PA, where I once taught school. Friends invited me back to watch her perform at the opening of the city’s new arts center and I was lucky enough to be sitting front row when she strolled on stage in a jumpsuit and ponytailed, looking young again; reborn, you might say. The audience was in tuxedos and evening gowns, not exactly dressed for Aretha’s rhythm & blues, but by the end of the show she had every row on their feet, dancing to “Chain of Fools.” She inspires life in every one of us fools, I thought, as we exited the righteously christened arts center.
It was at my final Aretha concert, in 2008, where I began to imagine we might always have her in full voice. She’d been invited to perform at Hamilton College, which offered alumni two complimentary tickets. A friend, an alumnus, invited me: I was going to see Aretha live—for free! She was 65 years old and had slowed down considerably since the Williamsport event, spending much of the Hamilton concert at the piano, which suited me just fine. I’m not alone in thinking her best work was born at the keyboard. As the show wrapped up, she asked the audience—yes, asked us—if she could perform a gospel number. We roared our approval.
At that, Aretha kicked off her fancy shoes, lifted her floor-length dress a few inches and started celebrating. I own her Amazing Grace album, recorded live at a Baptist church, so I was familiar with the power and command of her gospel singing. But I’d never been in the room where she was proclaiming it. Effortlessly, she shed the burden of her severe weight problem and the fact that she was a woman past her prime. Overcome by her spirit, I leapt from my seat 30 rows back and rushed toward the stage, dancing in her joy. I’ve never again experienced what I felt that night.
As I exited the concert, drenched in sweat, I again had this crazy notion: Maybe Aretha could go on forever. Hadn’t she always beat the odds? When the hits stopped coming in the early 1970s, people gave up on her. But in 1985, she found her way back to the top of the charts on “The Freeway of Love.” She showed up at Divas Live in 1998 and reclaimed her crown from powerhouse vocalists like Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. In 2012, numerous concerts were cancelled amid rumors of her impending death, but three years later she appeared at the Kennedy Center to honor singer-songwriter Carole King, proving those rumors wrong with a roof raising version of King’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” If you’ve never witnessed that performance, treat yourself: Aretha at the Kennedy Center. Aretha was in her 74th year that night and in her 62nd as a performer. Perhaps my crazy notion wasn’t so crazy; maybe Aretha never will die. But now she has.
I finally accepted that reality while watching the video of her funeral, a ten-hour celebration of Aretha’s life in sermons, scripture and song. I watched a little each day, intentionally stretching out my goodbye, hoping to find something I could celebrate. Then, one of the many ministers said this: “I’m grateful that I got to live on this earth at the same time as Aretha.” Amen. How fortunate I am to have seen her in person, to have heard her amazing voice in real time. How grateful I am to still feel my spirit lifted by hers.
Have you seen your musical idol in concert?