“You would think the Queen of Soul could afford a watch.”
I glance at my disgruntled father who has just muttered this comment, and smile to myself. It’s around 8:30 p.m. Saturday April 21. We’re sitting in plush red seats at the historic State Theater located in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, and we’re waiting for Aretha Franklin/ The Queen of Soul/ Re-Re to make her entrance. In fact, we’ve been waiting for half an hour. Aretha is performing in Cleveland as part of the 33rd annual Tri-C JazzFest. She isn’t opening the festival, nor is she closing the festival, but you can bet she’s the biggest name at the festival. (Esperanza Spalding and Diana Krall–some other big names–also performed during the 10-day festival, but no one can really compare to Aretha.) It’s now 8:35 and we’re still waiting, but I’m not even that annoyed. And no matter what my dad says, I know he’d wait even longer to see Aretha if he had to. Because this isn’t some singer. Hell, this isn’t even some diva. This is Aretha. So we’ll wait.
Every family has a cultural icon. For some families it’s Sinatra. For others it’s Johnny Cash. For my family, it has always been Aretha. My dad’s been listening to Aretha for as long as she’s been singing professionally. From her starting days at Columbia Records in 1960 to her rise to fame with Atlantic Records, to her rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee” at President Obama’s inauguration, my dad has followed it all. Aretha was a constant presence in our house. Every Sunday morning my dad plays Aretha’s album, Amazing Grace. Growing up, I knew breakfast was ready when I smelled bacon cooking and heard the strains of “Wholy Holy.” Although he’d never admit it, I’m pretty sure Aretha is my dad’s #1 woman and my mom and I are tied for number two. (We’ve both learned to accept it.)
Although I grew up in a house that always played Aretha, I only know a handful of songs by heart, and my fandom is nowhere near my dad’s. But I knew this much: When life gives you a chance to see the Queen of Soul, you should probably heed the advice. Aretha turned 70 last month, but she sang and shimmied like she was a 16-year-old girl just starting out. (Although there was probably a little less shimmying at age 70.) When she sang “Skylark”–and early song from 1963 that I had never heard but one my dad knew by heart–I felt a warm shiver. (Is such a thing possible?) It’s a voice that warms you and simultaneously blows you away. (I was also blown away by my 66-year-old father hollering “You go girl!”) In writing and in life, I’m never at a loss for words, but with the Queen of Soul I seem to be coming up short. How can you write about a voice that big? Fortunately, John Soeder of the Cleveland Plain Dealer captured Aretha perfectly in his review of the concert:
“Franklin was running late — nearly 45 minutes behind schedule. All was forgiven, though, as soon as she stepped up to the microphone. That once-in-a-lifetime voice of hers remains a national treasure.
“It’s a voice as big as America. And from sea to shining sea, it can carry just about any style of tune you like. Gospel. Blues. R&B. Pop. Rock ’n’ roll.”
Definitely worth the wait.