Baltimore native Brenda Alford has loved Aretha Franklin since the first time she heard her sing (Photo courtesy Brenda Alford)
By Brenda Alford
AFRO Guest editor
It was 1961 (be patient, dear reader- I’ll get you to the 70s). I was 11 years old, feeling betwixt, bothered and bewildered, like most “tweens” on the verge of the teenage years. Music was my lifeline in so many ways—especially the “discovery” of new sounds, new ways of expression-new songs. I would be going to junior high school in the fall, farther away from home alone than I’d ever been, so my mother started lengthening my leash, so to speak. I knew nothing about blues women then. Momma only played classical or easy listening (i.e. Caucasian) stations all day. But because I was 11(!!!) I was allowed to play a station that I chose for a short time each day that summer, and I stumbled onto WSID-AM radio.
For the very first time while channel surfing one hot summer afternoon, out of that little radio in the kitchen blasted the soul-shaking sound of a new song by Aretha Franklin. It was “Won’t Be Long,” a throwback to the songs sung by blues women like Big Momma Thornton and Bessie Smith. OMG! Aretha Franklin! Who was this? I wailed the lyrics at the top of my lungs in a down-home vernacular that was never used in my mother’s house, “Baby here I be by the railroad tracks…” And then, while shaking my almost-hips to the driving tambourine and the piano riffs, I imitated Aretha’s every breath- “I ain’t had no loving since you know when. He’s a long-gone rooster, and I’m a lonesome hen…” My mother had a fit!
Back to “Red Sails in the Sunset” that radio dial went every time Mama caught me listening to that song, but not before I memorized every note, every drum break, and every shout that emanated from that wondrous voice! By the time I was in college in 1967, I had heard all of Aretha’s jazz recordings in my cousin’s record collection, but I didn’t have them at home. However, that year, I bought the one that I “played the grooves off” of–the album that I loved so much, I Ain’t Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. “Respect” was on that album, and that’s how my bedroom got cleaned on Saturdays-dancing with the mop and broom while singing Aretha’s high notes. She also reached into my gut and rattled my penchant for the blues-tearing up Ray Charles’ “Drown in My Own Tears”. Many a day showering after P.E. in the empty girls’ locker room, I did a private concert for myself, knowing that no one could hear me. I’ll never forget the one day I stepped out of the shower after wailing on “Natural Woman” from her Lady Soul album, and I heard a chorus of cheers and claps coming from my girlfriends-talk about embarrassed in my “natural” state!
The voice of Aretha Franklin and her amazing music propelled me through my anti-Vietnam war, Afro-centric consciousness with “People Get Ready”, and pro-feminist power with “Chain, Chain, Chain.” After college, in my giant Afro years, the album was Young Gifted and Black. Whoa, baby! My sisters and I practically caused a riot singing “Rock Steady!” That was the first time I declared I was going to quit singing because the crowd stormed the stage, and I realized that I didn’t like crowds! Through the 70’s, the time during which I started performing in earnest, we must have sung every song on those three albums! We did “Day Dreaming” (1972), and “Young, Gifted and Black” (1972) with the tightest harmony! “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Respect,” Aretha-style, are embedded into my singing to this very day! I just revived her arrangement of “A Change is Gonna Come” a couple of years ago, and you know what? I remembered every note! The Amazing Grace album taught me the gospel nuances and tonal qualities in her voice. When I became a professional singer in the late 70’s, and whenever I was singing on the choir at St. Joseph Freewill Baptist Church, that’s how I found the soul in my singing. That lady changed my life, and I still draw on the sound and soul in the music of the Queen of Soul.
Yes, Aretha Franklin, my soul looks back, but I don’t wonder-I know how I got over. I listened to your amazing music before, during, and after the 1970’s! And your music made the 70’s one of the most important, formative decades of my life!
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