Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Long Live Her Majesty Queen of Soul!

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As a proud native Detroiter, I have always been exceptionally fond of the Motor City and the extraordinary talent it has produced. Detroit has always been a cultural mecca for food ways and folkways, for music particularly Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, Gospel, Rock and Roll, Classical and other forms of music. It has also been a cultural oasis for literature, art, industry, politics, religion and sports, but it is primarily the contributions of great singers and musicians that I most remember as a young man who was born, bred and raised in the great city of Detroit.

As a young man growing up in Detroit, it was not uncommon to find me and my friends standing on the street corner at Pacific and Ironwood on the city’s West Side trying to doo-wop music of the Drifters and sing the latest Motown songs.  I admired Berry Gordy and what he accomplished through Motown Records which saved the lives of many young black men and women who grew up aspiring to become the next great singer or entertainer.

I spent a lot of time between my school work, sports and church activities trying to sing and hold a tune. I lived just a “stone’s throw” from St. Stephens A.M.E church which was the community epicenter drawing Motown prospective talent and aspiring singers to its many talent shows. St Stephens housed roller skating and other fun activities for youths creating safe places and spaces for them at a time when the city was teeming with great energy, excitement and joy.

Detroit was a great place to grow up. Prior to 1967, it was hub of creativity and adventure. It was not unusual to see shiny new cars slowly easing down clean city streets turning wide and long at narrow street corners with music blaring from homes, record shops and transistor radios as members of the Boomer Generation packed neighborhoods and local communities by the tens of thousands.

Motown kept a lot of young folks off the streets and gave them something constructive to do and they had fun doing it. When I listen to Motown music today it still sounds better than ever and takes me back to an idyllic-euphoric time in my life that I will always fondly remember.

One of my favorite singers of all time was the late great Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, the quiet warrior; the lover of life, the dream weaver and dispenser of hope and goodness for millions of people. Aretha was not part of the Motown staple of singers but was known and loved by people of Motown like Smokey Robinson and others who grew up not too far from Aretha on the North End of Detroit. She was still a part of the Motown extended family.

Aretha was always in a class of her own. Nobody could touch her in the way she could interpret and sing a song. Many times she brought tears to my eyes when I listened to her records. Her mother was a Gospel singer and her father, the late Reverend C.L. Franklin, was also a great singer and preacher. Many believe that Rev. Franklin was one of, if not the actual, creator of a famous black preaching style called the “Whoop,” which is a method of preaching which crescendos from the spoken word into the singing word. It is a style of black preaching requiring great skill and still has popularity mostly among Black Baptist preachers and still moves listeners to shout or fall out with the Holy Ghost in worship services. It is a magnificent style of preaching embodying and emoting a kind of incantational hum or intonation reminiscent of some rites and rituals in African Traditional Religions, Gregorian chants, and even Hindu and Buddhist tonal chants.

Aretha was the Queen of Soul but drew inspiration not only from the rich, eclectic traditions of black religion, spirituality, life and culture, but also gathered ideas and musical motifs from the vast ocean of other traditions and influences.

Like the late great Miles Davis who was an innovator and visionary who shaped various genres of American Classical Music, previously known as “Jass,” later changed to Jazz; a label put on the music which Miles disliked, Aretha, albeit trained primarily in the Gospel-Spiritual-Blues and Folk traditions of the Black Church, ventured into, influenced and helped develop other innovations in that music in a manner similar to what Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn accomplished with Be-Bop in Jazz as American Classical Music.

But it was in the world of Rhythm and Blues that Aretha gained musical ascendancy and notoriety, developed her musical virtuosity, made her bones so to speak, and attained global stardom and fame. By moving from Gospel music and experimenting with other forms of music mostly in the Rhythm and Blues genre, Aretha expanded her musical and creative boundaries not only in terms of what songs she sang but how she sung them. Her musical genius and fluency are revealed in the content, structure, phrasing and feeling of her songs and the way she brought a Gospel music feel to R and B, and as all great exploratory singers and musicians have discovered over time, her musical curiosity and creativity had been driven by a perpetual hunger for fresh spirited musical ideas which set her apart from many of her musical peers and contemporaries.

Aretha was a superlative and gifted vocalist, a child prodigy, but she also systematically worked to hone and develop her musical skills and worked hard at her craft. Aretha’s extraordinary gifts enabled her to become a transcendent musical person which propelled her to interpret the meaning of a song far beyond the written page. She was in essence music royalty, the Queen of Soul for sure, but Her Majesty Queen of Soul most definitely.

I will never forget the time I really got fully “baptized: into her music on a high school field trip to Indianapolis, Indiana to campaign for the late great Robert Kennedy who was running for President.

My Northwestern High School class took a bus trip to Indianapolis and its seems that the only songs we listened to were by Aretha Franklin. I can honestly say that listening to that music elevated my interest in a young lady that I took a quaint notice of on that bus ride. Songs like “Ain’t No Way” and others knocked my socks off and it was there in the Spring of the year of 1968 that I first fell head over hills for the young lady who never ever ever returned even the slightest interest in me.

Oh well, my point is that Aretha’s music transported me to feelings and places that I had never been before. I wasn’t in love when I got on that bus to Indianapolis but I was madly in “love” so I thought, after listening to Aretha for many days and finally disembarked from that bus.

And although the young lady showed no likeness or love for me in return, a strange thing happened on the way to Indianapolis. It was unrequited love for me personally, as they say, but every time I heard that song “Ain’t No Way” and later other songs like “I’ll Say A Little Prayer for You,” by Aretha or any of her other stupendous, chart breaking jams, I was transported from highways to heaven. From that point on, those feelings of romance and bliss came flooding back in a gush of sentimental tears. And I still get that way when I hear her music especially when I am with my wife Jeane.

Last night we were listening to her songs, and those tidal waves of emotions that I could barely keep at bay when hearing her music came flooding back to me. Part of those feelings emanate from the idea that while Aretha is gone in the flesh, she shared so much love and joy with us as her fans and avid listeners through her phenomenal artistry and music. She literally created the song tracks of our lives growing up. But there always seemed to be a tinge or glint of sadness or melancholia in her eyes in some of her photographs. Perhaps some of her music revealed a slight tone of hurtfulness in her voice underneath the joyful expressions of her music, or perhaps it issued from some deep, deep reservoir of pain and suffering or just from the challenges of life and living or maybe even love unrequited in her personal life.

We all have joy and pain in some form or another which have taken residency in us over the years, feelings which have been tucked way down deep inside the inner recesses of our being and consciousness that are called up by a song, a memory, an idea or just a familiar face or someone from our past who gave us so much meaning and healing and helped us cross that bridge over troubled waters or gain some real R-E-S-P-E-C-T while going through life’s numerous trials and tribulations. Aretha’s music became that bridge for me and many more people in so many ways who are testifying today about what she and her music meant to them.

What joy and meaning and power Aretha brought to us through her music; how she lifted our spirits and gave us so many good feelings and happiness.

The Queen of Soul has gone on to glory now. She is singing with the angels in heaven and her music here on earth will live on forever.

God bless Her Majesty Queen of Soul and may she rest with God in eternal peace.

God bless her family, friends and fans all over the world but also in the great city of Detroit-Motown, who will miss her greatly, are grieving her loss like a dear family member but will continue to celebrate her extraordinary life and legacy for many years to come.


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