By Michael P Coleman
I was shaken to the core this morning at the news that the world had lost the peerless Aretha Franklin, reportedly to pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. You see, I had breakfast with her every Sunday morning in Detroit while I was growing up.
My first memory of the legend is waking up to the aroma of my mother’s waffles, eggs, sausage, and grits accompanied by Franklin’s heavenly voice on her landmark 1972 Amazing Grace album, recorded over the course of two nights at James Cleveland’s church in southern California. Amazing Grace was one of only two gospel albums my mom owned, and we heard it every weekend. It stands as the best-selling live gospel album of all time, and is Franklin’s best-selling album.
Even today, I know every run and lick on that Amazing Grace album — even if I can’t come close to singing those runs and licks with Franklin. I still play “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” “God Will Take Care Of You,” or the title track when I need a little encouragement…or I just feel like going to church.
But in a way, Franklin took us to church no matter what she was singing.
I’d missed out on Franklin’s first two acts: her relatively uneventful stint at Columbia Records and her subsequent incendiary run at Atlanta Records, the latter of which established her as the Queen of Soul with hits like “Respect,” “Dr. Feelgood,” and “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman.”
I became a huge fan of Franklin’s after she signed to Arista Records in 1980 and Clive Davis put a slight pop sheen on that incredibly soulful voice. She had a second string of hits there, including the Luther Vandross collaboration “Jump To It,” the George Michael duet “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me,” and the Rolling Stones cover “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” At Arista, Franklin scored the best selling single of her long, heralded career: “Freeway Of Love” from her 1985 Who’s Zoomin’ Who album.
After decades of loving Franklin, I was finally lucky enough to catch her in concert for the first time three years ago, in Oakland. She was, in a world, electrifying. When she relieved her pianist from his duties, sat down at the keyboard, and launched into the first gospel song of the night, she took everyone at the Oracle Arena to the same church she’d ushered me into all of those Sunday mornings ago.
Franklin was awarded an astounding 18 Grammys during her career, and was the first female vocalist to be honored by the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. At the time of her death, she was reportedly planning an album with Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, and Elton John. I join fans worldwide in hoping that some of those recordings are in the can and will be heard soon.
But even if cancer kept the Queen from singing a single note for that album, music fans have a wealth of music to enjoy. The uninitiated can start with the comprehensive four disc collection of her glory days at Atlantic. For latter day Aretha fans, Arista released a solid single disc of her biggest hits on that label.
Or, if you think you can handle it, check out Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings, and hold on tight. The undisputed Queen Of Soul may just save yours.
RIP Miss Aretha Franklin, and thank you.