A farewell to the queen


By John Krull TheStatehouseFile.com  LITTLETON, Colorado – The words carved into the stone of the wall at the Columbine Memorial say so much: “It brought the nation to its knees, but now that we’ve gotten back up how have thing changed; what have we learned?” I’m at the memorial early in the morning, before the […]

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INDIANAPOLIS — Somehow, it’s fitting that the Queen of Soul and the King of Rock ’n’ Roll died on the same date.

Thanks to Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley, Aug. 16 forever will be known, to quote a song from my youth, as the day the music died.

We don’t agree about much as a country and a people now. We find some of the silliest reasons imaginable to turn disagreements into arguments, arguments into fights, fights into brawls and brawls into wars.

But most of us did agree about Elvis.

And Aretha.

More important, we agreed we wanted to live in a country where stories like theirs were possible.

We wanted an America in which the son of an ex-convict Southern sharecropper and day laborer could vault from working as a truck driver to becoming a king.

And we wanted a land in which a black, teenage, unwed mother could leap from being in the choir in her father’s church to becoming a queen.

Elvis and Aretha became royalty the same way — through hard work, by breaking down barriers and by being talented.

So talented.

Many tributes have been written to the natural force of Aretha’s voice. It was a marvel, an instrument of incredible range and flexibility, so supple and so powerful at the same time.

But many people are born with great voices.

That doesn’t make them great singers.

That doesn’t make them Aretha.

What defines the great, great singers — and Aretha Franklin was one of the greatest — is a fierce intelligence. In addition to superb musicianship, they must have such a deep understanding of life that they literally can live a lyric — and make the audience live it, too.

That can come from nowhere but a profound sense of our shared humanity, of the pieces of life that link everyone.

Aretha Franklin may have climbed heights that allowed her to pal around with presidents and other potentates, but it was clear she never forgot what it was like to be a black, unwed, teenage mother in a segregated America. She never forgot what it was like to be disregarded and disparaged.

That was why she could sing about respect — R-E-S-P-E-C-T — with the urgency she did. She knew what it felt like to have other people look past her.

She had lived the lyric.

And she made us — black and white, male and female — live it, too.

The late Otis Redding of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” fame, himself no slouch as an interpretative singer, wrote “Respect” and recorded it first.

When he heard Aretha’s version, Redding shook his head in dismay and admiration.

“The little girl cut me,” he said and laughed.

Redding knew genius when he heard it.

He knew Aretha had taken the song — and, with it, the audience — places he hadn’t and maybe couldn’t.

That’s the thing about genuine artists such as Aretha.

They show us things about our own lives and souls — and about the lives and souls of others. They remind us that we all breathe and bleed, live and love, rejoice and cry.

They give us lessons in empathy, often to a great beat that we can dance to.

I’m a democrat with a small “d.” I believe that, regardless of how we pray, the color of our skin or who we love, we’re all born into and swim in the same broad river of humanity. For that reason, I’ve never had much use for royalty or for the trappings associated with it.

But I am and always have been a fan of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

And I’m more than happy to bow down before the Queen of Soul.

Perhaps it was a coincidence that Elvis and Aretha both died on Aug. 16. Maybe it was a quirk of fate. Possibly a message from the universe.

All I know is that, for a lot of us, that date will be the day the music died, the anniversary of when the King and the Queen left us.

Long may they reign.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].

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