If Richard Peck holds a special place on the reading list of my life, then Aretha Franklin holds a place of prominence on the soundtrack of my heart. If you’ve never read the story of her life, I encourage you to do just that. You’ll see why her voice seemed to know it all. It’s because she lived it all.
I have loved Aretha Franklin since I was a child. My parents played her music, and sang her praises; I grew up knowing that hers was a voice without equal. As I grew older, my music tastes grew to encompass more styles and genres, but I never stopped listening to Aretha Franklin. There was one song I especially loved—“One Step Ahead.” I played it over and over on the old record player in our house. Then college came. Then life came. Suddenly, I was limited to hearing it on breaks and visits home.
In this time before iTunes, I mentioned “One Step Ahead” to the love of all my lifetimes. Actually, I mentioned how I couldn’t find it anywhere. It was during a conversation about Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Blossom Dearie, and Frank Sinatra—all still with us then. It was a conversation about how our parents’ music had became our music.
Less than a week later he handed me a CD copy of “One Step Ahead.” It was a burned CD, back when people did that sort of thing, labeled “One Step-Aretha Franklin,” in his left-handed scrawl. How in Italy above a bakery with no Internet, dialup or otherwise, he managed to not just track down, but get a burned copy of the song I’ll never know. How he got the copy doesn’t matter. It’s that he got the copy. We sat down and listened to Aretha tell us and teach us about love. “What a voice,” I think he said. I just smiled. What a voice. With her voice she could do anything. She sang like someone who had lived a life because she did. Her voice was love and heartbreak, ecstasy and pain, innocence and experience. Her voice was soul. She meant every note and you felt every word.
The first song we swayed to, it wasn’t dancing there was too much laughter and carelessness to call it that, was “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” We danced to it again one May morning, breaking tradition and defying superstition, a couple of years later. There was no laughter that May morning, just smiles and the future. We listened to it again today, and remembered the queen with a preternatural voice. What a tremendous loss, but what a wonderful gift. We’ll always have the music.