Holding church for the incomparable Aretha Franklin
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. – Philippians 4:8
The late Reverend Dr. C.L. Franklin of Detroit, Michigan and pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church and my late father, The Rev. Dr. Reuben Edward Cooper, Sr. were friends, and often, dad visited Michigan. So, from an early age I have been hearing and following Aretha Franklin and what a voice she had. Her rendition of the song “Where We’ll Never Grow Old” has never left me, and more so as years are added to my life and people ask me what I am doing, I tell them that I am headed to a land where you never grow old! It was like what I was to my father in the church, what Aretha was to her father and the church.
So, when I arrived in Detroit to spend some time with my sister, Fanny, I asked about Aretha, and Fanny told me that she had not heard any adverse news as to her wellbeing. One night when we were up late reminiscing, breaking news told of Aretha being gravely ill.
Days after, a prayer vigil was announced to be held at New Bethel at five in the morning. We attended and I was asked to speak after the call to worship.
A few days ago, Fanny and I drove to Toronto to visit my school friend. At the hotel where we were staying I picked up a free copy of the National Post and was saw within it a bold headline, “Queen of Soul was daughter of the church” written by Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, a columnist for the National Post, editor-in-chief of Convivium Magazine, and the parish priest of Sacred Heart of Mary Parish on Wolfe Island, Ontario, Canada. He is the current Roman Catholic Chaplain at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and also chaplain of the Queen’s football team. He teaches at Queen’s in the department of economics and the Queen’s faculty of education. I share de Souza’s contribution.
Given Catholic liturgical praxis and my own worship tastes, it’s very rare that I get to, as is said in the proud tradition of black America, “have church.” But what is a summer road trip for if not to take a detour off one’s usual path?
So passing through Detroit on Tuesday morning, I stopped in to pray with the people of New Bethel Baptist, who were having church. I would call it a sunrise service, except that it began and ended before the sun was up. I was not the only visitor. There were news trucks outside and a larger than usual congregation. It was a special prayer vigil for Aretha Franklin, who was in hospice at her home in Detroit and who passed away just this [Thursday, August 16] morning.
Aretha, 76, was born in Memphis to a preacher father and a musician mother. The family relocated to Detroit when she was five, and soon after her parents separated and her mother left town. Her father, C.L. Franklin, lived a life at times at odds with the Christian gospel, but he was a successful pastor at New Bethel Baptist for 30 years. Indeed, the street the church is on has been named after him.
Aretha grew up in the black church, with its rich gospel music traditions. Referred to in Detroit as the “Queen of Soul” as if it were her professional occupation, Aretha is a reminder that the soul of the African-American musical tradition is the spiritual, the music of the church. As a teenager she sang in her father’s church and, even after her rise to secular music stardom maintained her links to the musical tradition that formed her. Her 1972 album, “Amazing Grace,” was the best-selling gospel album ever at the time.
So it was suitable that at her home church they sang and prayed for Aretha, even as she was in her final days. The soul was lifted up in supplication for a singer who so often lifted up the souls of others.
I only heard Aretha live twice. The first time was at the inauguration of Barack Obama, which I was in Washington to cover. An enormous crowd had gathered with a great sense of historic moment, but the ceremony was rather flat, including the new president’s forgettable speech. Then Aretha arrived, complete with a hat that would have made the church ladies at New Bethel proud to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” just she would have sung it in the sanctuary. It was the emotional and esthetic high point of the day, and a living link to the civil rights movement in which Aretha played a leading role. Of the various great public ceremonies that I have covered, it was a singular moment.
Four years later, I attended her concert at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. By then in her 70s, and suffering from various maladies, she was able to perform for only about for an hour. But she was still the woman whom Rolling Stone magazine declared the greatest popular singer of all time.
Johnathan Lethem of Rolling Stone put it this way: “There’s something about a voice that’s personal, not unlike the particular odor or shape of a given human body. Summoned through belly, hammered into form by the throat, given propulsion by bellows of lungs, teased into final form by tongue and lips, a vocal is a kind of audible kiss, a blurted confession, a soul-burp you really can’t keep from issuing as you make your way through the material world.”
A soul-burp? Perhaps for others. With Aretha, it would be more a soul-shout, or a soul-song, or even a soul-summons.
At that Toronto concert, my favorite moment was not the encore – “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, of course – but a lesser known song, “Call Me (the moment you get there).” Aretha explained the origins of the son, seeing a couple on Park Avenue in New York take leave of each other.
“I love you,” said the one. “I love you too,” said the other. “Call me the moment you get there.” That’s it for the lyrics, such as they are. Yet with Aretha’s voice the entire relationship takes shape – the delightfulness of falling in love, the necessity of parting, the eagerness to hear the beloved’s voice again as soon as possible, the confidence in a shared future.
At New Bethel on Tuesday, one of the ladies sang a hymn with even fewer words, “Thank you Jesus.” And there it was, in the simplicity of repetition and complexity of a superlative voice, the roots of Aretha’s more than 60 years of splendid singing. It was the black church in Detroit who taught her that, and it was so fitting to have church for her there.