We all have superpower dreams once in a while. Some people dream of flying, others of breathing underwater or leaping buildings in a single bound. I once dreamt I could sing soaring, effortless high notes like Aretha Franklin and believe me, that sensation was more thrilling than anything Superman was ever capable of.
When I was twenty-five and newly arrived in New York City—perpetually broke and overwhelmed by the day-to-day rigors of waitressing, apartment-hunting, and trying to forge a singing career—I spent a couple hundred bucks I didn’t have on tickets to an Aretha Franklin concert at Radio City.
The crowd that night was star-studded; I was seated behind Arif Marden and Cissy Houston, and Bette Midler was just a couple of rows ahead. Aretha was in fantastic voice and seemed to be giving a concert for her friends, singing whatever she damn well pleased. The set list was eclectic, spanning the full breadth of Aretha’s decades-long career: she sang “Won’t Be Long” and a few jazz standards, a nod to her earliest recordings on Columbia Records. She treated us to a medley of her biggest hits and even performed “Precious Memories,” from her 1972 live gospel album “Amazing Grace.”
The apex of the evening came when Aretha, resplendent in a Glinda-the-good-witch-of-the-North ball gown, chandelier earrings, and a silky blonde ponytail, sat down at the piano. She sighed. One of her earrings had fallen out at some point earlier in the evening, so she took the other one out, too, and set it on the piano. She turned to the audience and said, conspiratorially, “Imma let it all hang out tonight,” and she took off her ponytail and set it on the piano, too. Then she accompanied herself (she could have had a great career as a pianist even if she’d never sung a note) on a rendition of “Dr. Feelgood” that shook Radio City Music Hall—and the souls of everyone in it—to their very foundations.
In the 1980s, the state of Michigan officially declared Aretha Franklin’s voice a precious natural resource. As far as I’m concerned, she was one of the wonders of the world. In my life’s most exuberant moments of heart-spilling-over joy, I’ve turned to Aretha for release. In the darkest nights of my soul, hopeless and helpless, Aretha has given me faith in the tomorrows yet to come. She’s still doing that.
Right now I am listening to Aretha’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” because Aretha’s singing is the closest thing I have to a religion. “At the end of a storm,” she sings, “there’s a golden sky/and the sweet silver song of a lark.” Unimaginably, Aretha Franklin has departed this plane and gone to that golden sky but—hallelujah!—there is a sweet silver song and the song was Aretha, is Aretha, and will always be Aretha, for hers is the power and the glory.