I first heard Aretha Franklin when I was 11 years old, listening clandestinely to my small transistor radio tuned to WABC (or was it WMCA?), which was tucked under my pillow as I was supposed to be sleeping. Like my mother I was an insomniac, though unlike my mother I would eventually outgrow it. We had strict bedtimes and it always took me several hours to fall asleep, so I would put my radio under the pillow and listen to music, or to Jean Shepherd tell stories on WOR.
When “Respect” came on that fateful night it struck me in a weird and wonderful way. The wonderful part is obvious to anyone who’s heard the song, but I use “weird” because the passage of time makes it difficult to explain exactly what I was feeling, but the fact that that moment still remains clear in my brain proves the unique staying power of the chemistry of the song. At 11, I was still processing popular music, which dominated my world, even while I lacked the critical faculties to explain why. And it wasn’t as if Aretha was the first “new artist” I had grappled with in my short life. In hindsight I have to contend with the feeling of that moment, of hearing something both old and incredibly fresh. I think it was the boldness of the performance that struck me. At the time I was still enamored of Motown, whose commercial priorities were meant to appeal as equally to a white boy like me as they were to the black kids who were their main constituency. I was still a bit intimidated by James Brown, probably because of the primacy of his art, the raw calculation of his rhythms and the directness of his voice. I heard these same qualities in “Respect,” but for some reason–because it was being sung by a woman? because of the more conventional structure of the song?–I felt immediately drawn into the performance, which was at once confrontational and warm, accusatory and exuberant, provocative and inviting.
In a nutshell, this was something new–not the music, but my reaction to it. Aretha was the first artist this AM radio-loving preadolescent really acknowledged as something new and different, even if she was, as a singer and performer, a culmination of all the great black music traditions that came before her. To me, it really was a religious experience; certainly the first and most powerful impression a new song ever made on me, and the very fact that I can remember that feeling fifty years later so unambiguously proves to me that I’m still alive and still vital in mind and body. The very fact that Aretha isn’t any more just makes me confused and incredibly sad. Whenever I listen to her music I have a direct connection to my childhood that can’t be broken. And the life in the meantime has been so much better because of it.