Just thinking of Aretha

Published: Friday, January 14, 2011 at 7:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 at 7:49 p.m.

Nineteen sixty-seven was a tough year in many respects — riots, protests, an unwinnable war — but I can't think of it without thinking of the glory of Aretha Franklin, a woman in her mid-20s, introverted and somewhat shy, who sang soul and rock 'n' roll with the power and beauty of a heavenly choir.

Newark and Detroit went up in flames in 1967, and neither city was ever to recover. Muhammad Ali, a perfect physical specimen in his absolute athletic prime, was convicted of dodging the draft and stripped of his world heavyweight championship. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. endured a hurricane of criticism when he came out publicly against the war in Vietnam and called the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

If you were lucky, you could close the door on the din, at least for a little while, and reach for the record album with the head and shoulder shot of Aretha positioned at a precarious angle on the cover.

The album was called "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You," and if you listened closely, if you paid attention, it would just thrill you, take you to a place of exquisite human feeling. A region of laughter and tears. Of love and joyous possibilities.

I would turn the volume up and up and up, and just ride the music: "You're no good, heartbreaker ... " "Don't let me lose this dream ..." "R-e-s-p-e-c-t ..."

You could hear the gospel influence, and the blues, as you allowed that voice of hers, the most gifted of the era, to carry you beyond the ordinary.

Aretha, now 68, recently had surgery and is very ill, reportedly with pancreatic cancer. I spoke recently with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who is very close to the Franklin family. He was reluctant to speak in detail, saying only that Aretha was home from the hospital, that the surgery was "successful" and she was "recovering nicely."

For someone with such an abundance of talent and fame and riches, Aretha has had an extremely difficult life. Tragedy seemed to stalk her. Her mother, Barbara, left the family when Aretha was just 6 and died a few years later.

Aretha and her siblings, including an older sister, Erma, and a younger sister, Carolyn, were raised by the formidable C.L. Franklin, a renowned preacher and close friend of some of the biggest names in black music.

Franklin was shot in the head by someone who broke into his home in 1979 and remained in a coma for five years until his death. Carolyn Franklin, who wrote the transcendentally beautiful "Ain't No Way" for Aretha, died of cancer in 1988 at the age of 43. Erma Franklin, a singer who had a hit with the song "Piece of My Heart," died in 2002.

Aretha suffered through rough relationships with men, chronic weight problems and bouts of despondency. But always, there was the music, the splendor and artistry and grace of Aretha when she was at her best, which was often.

As the author Peter Guralnick has put it: "Aretha staked out a claim for the ecstatic transcendence of the imagination."

Rolling Stone magazine ranked her No. 1 on its list of the 100 greatest singers of the rock era.

Aretha has had a lifetime of musical success, but it's difficult to overstate both the greatness and the stunning impact of that one album. Guralnick described it as Aretha virtually exploding on the soul scene.

In a telephone interview recently, he recalled hearing the title song from the album outside a record shop in Boston. It was a cold day, and strangers were dancing on the sidewalk. They were thrilled by the music of this great artist.

So a toast or a prayer for Aretha would be terrific — just a moment of appreciation and a wish that she continue recovering nicely.

Bob Herbert writes for The New York Times.

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