Aretha Franklin, at one pivotal moment in time

A reflection on one of the Queen of Soul’s many amazing performances.

August 16, 2018

She swayed out from the shadow lingering on lusty vowels that spoke of blackness and manhood. Enswathed shoulder-to-floor in a favored designer — the Los Angeles based funktician Boyd Clopton — the young but bonafide royal gently lifts a hand, that hand (you know the one), as she delivers the next line, cheekily. “I can touch your whiteness / And your oranges, and your power.” Her earlobes drip gold like her mic, her hair braided to a self-standing crown. That last word, power, yawns like a great sinkhole opened at the center of the universe and then closed because she’s moving on because the languor belongs to us, the audience, and not the musician. The song is at hand and it’s time for the chorus: “Spain. Yes, Mister Spain.”

ADVERTISEMENT

It is 1974. Richard Nixon is president, for now, and white people are consumed with a crisis of their own making, for now (and forever). They’ve discovered a blues without black people, the “blue collar blues” so it’s called, a veritable illness with symptoms coincidentally contemporaneous with desegregation, equitable pay, and voting rights legislation. (The American government funded a special task force to diagnose the issue.) The economy is on the brink of doing the thing the decade would be known for. It is 1974 and the real ‘70s, the one you’ve read about, the one fewer and fewer people remember, was only just beginning.

That sixties residue was washing away and with it the sense of synchronicity — or continuity as the late and brilliant scholar Richard Iton describes it — between sound and lyric and politics that compels us to hear Marvin’s “What's Going On” like it was recorded yesterday, the same one that metamorphosed Aretha’s “Respect” into something deeply symbolic and true. "I'm not a politician or political theorist," she’s said. "I don't make it a practice to put my politics into my music or social commentary. But the fact that 'Respect' naturally became a battle cry and an anthem for a nation shows me something."

By the time she appeared on The Flip Wilson Show for this third time, Aretha had enough hits and accolades and genre-defining techniques in hand to sail into oblivion if she wanted and America would had better be grateful for it. And though the ‘60s appetite for anthems had waned, Ms. Franklin was hardly done. She had new ideas, new aesthetics, another wave and another mood she wanted to try. She was changing the very contours of what was meant by soul. The artwork for 1973’s Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) draws her in the image of a winged Egyptian god, microphone still firmly in grasp. Sun Ra wasn’t the only one who could leave the planet.

Not everyone appreciated change, even from singer-songwriter as virtuosically agile as Aretha. “In which she rejects the producers who made her career for Quincy Jones and drifts off into the hey now hey with rudder trailing,” wrote Robert Christgau, giving the album a perfunctory B-. Wikipedia notes that Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) “was the first Atlantic album by Aretha to miss the Top 25 of the album chart,” and I’m struggling to read for tone there; whether it’s awe or admonition that urged an anonymous person to add this clause to a page about the Queen’s twenty-first album. On the album, Rolling Stone observed her serenity more like “restraint,” literally “long[ing]” for the black woman with the voice to “do the one thing she so obviously does best,” dammit. The word “uppity” doesn’t make an appearance, but it may as well, what else might be euphemized in an album review that illustrates Aretha’s experiments beyond popular soul as like the wanderings of a runaway slave.

The review admits something special, though, about track six, “Mister Spain,” composed by Carolyn Plummer. Reviewer Russell Gersten is drawn to the song, in spite of its alleged “gaucheness,” particularly a moment that occurs during the second hail now more of an entreaty to our subject Mr. Spain by name. “No, don't do that, Mister Spain / Don't you put another needle in your vein.” On the album, the name wavers in her mouth and there is a brief, dramatic pause before vein, a rapid crescendo event unto itself and the mode of sanging the reviewer and others probably wanted to hear the entire time.

Wearing red, pink, yellow, and green with fur about her collar and hair curled around an invisible coronet, standing alone onstage The Flip Wilson Show, Aretha makes a switch. Oh, she gives the people what they want, those afore unheard of theatrics known as divaisms that she in large part made canon, but not where it’s intuitive or expected. “And I know what you’ve been missing, baby,” she sings, leaning melismatically into you’ve; the strings and horns ramp up around her, but she finishes the line flatly, rather than, as one might expect from a musician who is not Aretha, let the music carry her to that transcendent place. She gets there all her own, belting out her Mister’s name and falling into an open mouth smile, laughing all the way down. The memorable, suggestive lines to follow feel more like a transitory place than an end themselves — and Aretha chooses that moment to take a walk out of frame.

This song, this very sweetly strange song about blackness and whiteness and secrets and stroking these things from the outside, ends in laughter. On the recorded version, Aretha requests to hear “your laughter, right away”; there’s no time for such in an excerpted performance on television. The laughter is all hers. Each “laugh” is a playground. How many notes does she slide between — two, three, five? Laugh, Mr. Spain. She ends and lifts her arms, a goddess with so much more in store.

Laugh, Aretha.

Aretha Franklin, at one pivotal moment in time