It all started with that stack of records that dad left behind in the garage.
It wasn’t easy to live at my house when I was a kid. Seemed like there was either chaos or no one at all. The times when I couldn’t find something outside to do I’d hide in my room or the basement, reading books and listening to music.
I was only 10 years-old when I found my first Aretha Franklin record in the garage. The song was “Natural Woman.”
It was just one one of hundreds of dusty 45s that my dad had left behind after the divorce. The small, black discs were all I really had of my dad. Even on the occasional visits when I stayed with him in California, it was hard to connect.
I pictured my dad, Jay, a handsome young man, listening to these records, singing along. The funny thing was these old-fashioned songs were almost all really good.
Dusting the vinyl off with my t-shirt, I sat down on the rug next to the pink record player.
I put the record carefully on the turntable and shrugged on the huge sweater that I kept in “my studio.” It was freezing in the basement.
Sliding the black disc from the sleeve, fitting it to the turntable, carefully placing the needle. Each act, each song was a new piece of my father. Something we now shared.
Pressing the “record” button of the ancient garage sale reel-to-reel machine, I leaned toward the microphone (a small, patterned square), straightened the words so I could see them on the record label and read.
“Here’s Aretha Franklin with “A Natural Woman.”
There was always a long pause after the song-reading part where I needed to find the right part of the record.
The drop of the needle, then the sound of the vinyl itself (warm, crackly)…
The acoustic piano kicks in with a single note, then four regal chords. Aretha’s quietly powerful voice blossomed in the darkness. The speakers came alive.
Aretha Franklin is my favorite singer of all time.
In all of the music I play there is some influence of African roots, some feel of soul. Even in the punk or rock sets. That element of the singer really laying out their story is what I look for. The personal elements: vulnerability and the natural uniqueness of honesty are irreplaceable in music, and, in my opinion, its most powerful tools.
Ray Charles said: “There are singers, then there is Aretha. She towers above the rest. Others are good, but Aretha is great. She’s my only sure-enough sister.”
My favorite Aretha song “Baby I Love You” was released on her first album Aretha Arrives.
Her first single to hit both the R&B and the pop charts in 1967. “Baby…” would pave the way for other soul musicians.
Aretha would become what the industry called a “crossover artist,” meaning she appealed to audiences of all shapes, sizes and colors.
In this vintage vid, young Ree’s also rocking one of the coolest pairs of pink-striped pants you’ll ever see!
The first song I remember seeing Aretha Franklin perform was in the “Blues Brothers” movie.
I was 15 years-old and had never, ever seen a woman that strong laying down the line. Many of the older women in my life seemed to have a profound lack of boundaries.
Now here was a woman I could look up to.
Her voice was incredible and the song was equal parts: gospel, jazz and soul.
Dressed like a waitress, she sang like a queen.
So many years later, now I’m now a grown woman with my own radio show on one of the world’s finest stations. Every Friday night the first song of my dance party sets is the Krivitz remix of Aretha’s “Rock Steady.” And every week her voice inspires me all over again. What it is…
The Queen of Soul is 73 years-old today. On KEXP tonight, I’ll shine the spotlight on the best of her music. Happy birthday, Aretha!
Michele’s produced over 200 radio episodes for KEXP Documentaries. Her book “50 Tips for Artists in the Music Business” has gotten rave reviews from readers. Find Michele’s other writing at The Smithsonian Institute, Experience Music Project, The University of Washington and NPR.