Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Harold Meyerson: Gershwin and Bernstein

Once again, Harold Meyerson has sent an e-mail out to The American Prospect list that I couldn't agree with more (and once again I have to repost it to my blog because it's an e-mail instead of an entry on the Prospect Web site I could just link to]. I had the same observation myself when on a recent telecast I heard Leonard Bernstein referred to as "the quintessentially American composer" — and I immediately thought, "No, he wasn't. George Gershwin was.” Gershwin created stronger and more beautiful “classical” concert works AND wrote better songs for Broadway musicals (though in line with the general practice of the 1920's and 1930’s, most of the plots of the shows Gershwin’s songs appeared in were silly and dramatically uninteresting), despite having far fewer years to do it in (Gershwin died at 37, Bernstein at 72). — Mark Gabrish Conlan

Meyerson on TAP

Before There Was Lenny, There Was George. This past weekend, the musical, theatrical, and critical worlds celebrated Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday with performances and essays of appreciation. They’ve been doing it all year, and the Lenny-Fest, which has reached some very distant shores, will joyously roll on until winter.

Bernstein’s genius—as composer, conductor, performer; as the man who brought classical form to popular media and popular sounds to classical works; as the man who wrote profoundly American (which in his hands meant multicultural) music for classic European genres—has been treated not just as a kind of secular miracle, which it was, but also as sui generis, a one-of-a-kind achievement. Which it wasn’t.

There was one other American composer before him who blazed the trail down which Bernstein was to parade: George Gershwin. Much as Bernstein shuttled between the concert hall and Broadway, so did Gershwin—though Lenny was clearly the maestro of the classical genres that Gershwin hadn’t gotten to when he died. Much as Bernstein electrified the American musical with West Side Story, so Gershwin electrified American music with Rhapsody in Blue. Much as Bernstein brought an American sound to his symphonies, so Gershwin brought an American sound to his opera, Porgy and Bess. As Bernstein melded his own version of Latino-American music into a number of his scores, so Gershwin melded his own version of African American music into his shows and opera. (In the early 1920s, it was Gershwin—not the African American songwriting teams of Sissle and Blake or Miller and Lyles—who brought the blue note into Broadway music.) They were rooted cosmopolitans, these two Jewish composers, taking in all manner of music from all manner of idioms and transforming it into their own sound—propulsive, poignant, raunchy, mournful, breathtaking.

Gershwin seems to us a figure from a vanished world, while Bernstein is still a living presence. Gershwin emerged from the culture of song pluggers and Tin Pan Alley, now entries in the cultural histories, while Bernstein emerged from the culture of Tanglewood and other musical enclaves that are thriving to this day. Both were accomplished performers who loved displaying their brilliance before audiences, but Bernstein’s conducting is digitally with us still, while Gershwin’s piano recordings are the stuff of archives.

It comes as a surprise, then, to realize that Gershwin was only 20 years older than Bernstein. If he seems more distant from us than his birthdate would suggest, it’s because died so young—of a brain tumor at age 38, just three years after his opera premiered. Had he lived even just through middle age, his work, which was growing deeper both musically and thematically, would have overlapped Bernstein’s, and how the two would have interacted would have been a source of endless fascination, just as Bernstein’s debts to and interactions with a longer-lived Gershwin contemporary—Aaron Copeland—are studied today.

So I mean to take nothing away from Lenny the Magnificent to note that before him, there was Gershwin the Great. ~ HAROLD MEYERSON

Friday, August 24, 2018

R.I.P. Lady Soul


Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It’s been hard to believe that Aretha Franklin is dead. Of course, rationally I knew she was a normal human being, a soul housed in a mortal body, and she would have to go sometime. But, like the also recently deceased Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, she seemed more than that, like an eternal institution of (African-)American culture who would on some level always be with us. Of course, in a way she always will be with us as long as records, films and memories survive, since it’s been one of the bizarre quirks of the modern recording industry that no major voice since the early 1900’s has ever died. As early as 1900 the Gramophone Company of London was promoting their invention with a long list of artists whose records were available — and the last few names on the list had “The Late” in front of them, letting people know that through the magic of recording performers could still continue to entertain them even after they were dead.
It took me a while to get into Aretha Franklin. When she broke through to superstardom in 1967 I was a 13-year-old white kid living — thanks to one of my mother’s weirder ideas — in the middle of Marin City, the so-called “gilded ghetto” in which affluent Marin County had housed most of its African-American population. It wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with Black music; if anything I might have been overfamiliar with it. Unlike most white kids my age in 1967 I knew who Dinah Washington was — and if you don’t know who Dinah Washington was, look her up on archive.org or YouTube right away. She was a Black jazz-pop-soul singer who emerged in the early 1940’s and built up a huge following in the Black community, but aside from a few hard-core jazz fans almost no whites had heard of her until 1959, when her breakthrough record of “What a Difference a Day Made” — a 1920’s pop song she gave a full soul-R&B treatment — hit the white charts.
So when this heavy-set Black woman came over on our TV, pounding gospel chords on a piano and lamenting that she had never loved a man the way she loved her no-good liar and cheat in one song and then demanding R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the next, I didn’t know what to make of her. My first thought was, “She’s got all Dinah Washington’s power but none of her subtlety.” What turned me around was the release of Aretha: Lady Soul, her third album for Atlantic Records, in 1968. There was a small-print notation on the back cover saying that the guitar obbligato on one song, “Good to Me as I Am to You,” was provided by “Eric Clapton of ‘Cream’,” and if the intent behind that was to get white boys (and girls) to listen to this album and take Aretha Franklin seriously as an artist, it worked for me.
Years later I read Eric Clapton’s autobiography, in which he recalled that session. He said he’d walked into the studio, seen all those great Black guitar players and wondered, “What the hell does she need me for?” But he played a beautiful part on a song from an album whose 10 songs were of consistently high quality. Three of them — “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “(Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” — became major single hits. Any of the other seven could have. She tore into “Money Won’t Change You,” effectively evoked Ray Charles by covering his “Come Back, Baby,” created a beautiful pastoral mood on the Rascals’ “Groovin’” (her first of many great covers of white pop-rock hits), ended the album righteously with her sister Carolyn’s composition “Ain’t No Way,” and went back to her Black church roots with Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”:

I believe, I believe,
I believe, I do believe.
People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’
Don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin’.
You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.

In last year’s PBS series American Epic, dealing with the crisis that faced the recording industry in the late 1920’s when radio came in, and their response — which was to start recording Black folk, blues and gospel acts, as well as white country singers, who were popular in out-of-the-way rural communities hadn’t penetrated yet — one of the commentators argued that singers like Aretha Franklin and James Brown were heirs to the spiritual traditions of African-American churches and the gospel songs performed in them. In Aretha’s case, that was literally true: her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, worked for decades as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, the largest and most prestigious Black church in Aretha’s hometown of Detroit, Michigan.
Though he’d been an a cappella group singer briefly before he entered the ministry, Rev. Franklin neither sang nor played an instrument when he preached. Yet he became the number one best-selling artist on the Chicago-based Chess record label — at a time when its roster included Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf — even though his Chess albums were simply recordings of his sermons. His son, Rev. Carl Franklin, succeeded him in the pulpit at New Bethel and appeared with Aretha on a live gospel album she recorded there in 1986, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. Rev. C. L. Franklin’s three daughters — Aretha, Erma and Carolyn — all pursued careers in music, Carolyn as a songwriter for her sister and Erma as a soul star in her own right. In 1967 Erma Franklin made the first record of the Bert Berns-Jerry Ragovoy song “Piece of My Heart,” which a year later would become the star-making hit for Janis Joplin.
So in 1956, when Rev. C. L. Franklin informed Leonard and Phil Chess, the white Jewish brothers who owned his record label, that his 14-year-old daughter Aretha wanted to record a gospel album, they weren’t about to risk offending their best-selling artist by saying no. They said, “When and where?,” and the album was duly made. It didn’t sell much, but four years later at age 18 Aretha Franklin was ready to break out of the church and establish herself as a secular soul singer the way other great Black talents like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke had done. She got a start when she hooked up with a Black songwriter named Curtis Lewis and he used her to record a demo — a demonstration record with which he could hopefully sell one or more of his songs to a record producer and get them recorded by a major artist.
The demo found its way to the legendary producer John Hammond at Columbia Records. In the 1930’s he’d produced the last recordings by the great blues singer Bessie Smith, had helped launch Benny Goodman’s career and had discovered and signed Billie Holiday and Count Basie. In 1960 he was rebuilding his career at Columbia, had given a major-label contract to formerly blacklisted Left-wing folksinger Pete Seeger and was about to land another major talent, Bob Dylan. Hammond heard Lewis’s demo and fixated on one song, “Today I Sing the Blues,” partly because he was sure he’d heard it before. He had: in 1947 he had recorded it with Helen Humes, the jazz singer who’d replaced Billie Holiday with Count Basie, and then it had been credited as a Lewis-Humes co-composition.
But it wasn’t just the song that struck Hammond’s ear. “I was distracted by the singer,” he recalled in his 1975 autobiography. “Her name was Aretha Franklin, and even at first hearing, on a poorly made demo intended to sell songs rather than the singer, she was the most dynamic jazz voice I’d encountered since Billie. I wanted her for Columbia.” Unlike some of Hammond’s other discoveries, who had been total unknowns when he signed them, he had to compete for Aretha. Sam Cooke, who had become a soul star at RCA Victor after starting out with a gospel group called the Soul Stirrers, was trying to land Aretha, whom he knew well because the Soul Stirrers had frequently performed at Rev. Franklin’s church. She also auditioned for Berry Gordy’s up-and-coming Motown label, which in a way would have made sense — the daughter of Detroit’s leading Black minister recording for Detroit’s Black-owned record label — but Gordy turned her down as “too rough,” ironically the same words another Black label owner, W. C. Handy, had used in turning down Bessie Smith 40 years before.
Ultimately Hammond signed Aretha to Columbia — but then ran into a solid wall of corporate politics that prevented him from recording her the way he wanted to. He quickly lost control of Aretha’s career as the “suits” at Columbia decided that the way to make Aretha Franklin a star was to copy the format that had broken Dinah Washington at Mercury. They even hired Clyde Otis, who’d produced “What a Difference a Day Made” and many of Dinah’s other big hits at Mercury — and who’d been one of the first African-Americans to work as a producer at a major white-owned label — to come to Columbia and produce Aretha the same way. The result was the series of bizarre misfires that music writers have been making fun of ever since, including songs like “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” that became Aretha’s only Columbia recording to nose its way into the white pop charts.
Aretha Franklin’s recordings during her years at Columbia, 1961 to 1966, remain one of the most misunderstood parts of her career. They’ve often been ridiculed, sometimes by people who’ve never heard any of them. In the early 1980’s Columbia issued a CD compilation called Aretha Sings the Blues which is a pretty good record when it actually features Aretha singing the blues. It includes several tracks from the memorial album Aretha did to Dinah Washington, Unforgettable, in February 1964 — just two months after Dinah’s death — which are good but nowhere near the bravado and intensity of Dinah’s own recordings. It features her slogs through white pop like “Drinking Again” and “Only the Lonely” (the song Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen wrote for Frank Sinatra — not Roy Orbison’s song of the same title, which might have actually been a good vehicle for Aretha), as well as some tracks from a live date including Chippie Hill’s 1920’s blues “Trouble in Mind” and Lou Rawls’ pop-blues hit “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water.”
When I got Aretha Sings the Blues in the 1980’s I listened to it and noticed all the songs on which Aretha seems miscast, as well as the Dinah Washington covers and the songs that almost work — including the inevitable “Today I Sing the Blues,” the song that had attracted Hammond to her in the first place. Then, on the album’s very last song, “Maybe I’m a Fool,” it all comes together. From the hammering gospel piano chords that launch the piece to the entry of the voice, fully in command of her style and her material, driving home her tale of woe that she’s stuck on a no-good man, but if that’s foolish, then maybe she’s a fool, she’s at the top of her game, delivering her message with dramatic power and punch. When she cries out her own name in the middle of the release, it’s just one more dagger of pure emotion hurled at the listener, personalizing her tale of woe and making it unforgettable.
Surely, I thought, “Maybe I’m a Fool” must have been one of her very last recordings for Columbia. It so totally anticipates the masterpieces she would uncork and loose upon the world once she switched labels to Atlantic in 1967, one thinks it could only be the work of a singer who’d already worked out her style and was ready to make a series of songs of similar righteous power. Then I looked at the credits on the CD booklet and found that “Maybe I’m a Fool” was actually one of Aretha’s first records for Columbia, recorded January 10, 1961 and the only track on Aretha Sings the Blues personally produced by John Hammond. So the bitter comments about the end of her Columbia tenure in Hammond’s autobiography — “The musical misuse and eventual loss of Aretha as a recording artist disturbed me greatly, not least because her career since leaving Columbia has fulfilled every confidence I had in her” — aren’t the usual sour grapes of a record executive who signs an artist, gets nowhere with her, then sees her become a superstar somewhere else.
John Hammond knew. He knew not only that Aretha Franklin had the potential for superstardom, he knew what kind of material would get her there. He was a friend of Jerry Wexler, who took over her production when she moved to Atlantic, “and [I] knew he would return her to the gospel-rooted material she should be recording,” Hammond wrote. “She had every musicianly quality I thought she had. All she needed was to hold to her roots in the church.”

Aretha, Gospel, Soul and “First-Itis”

Certainly anyone who knew anything about Aretha Franklin’s music could hear its roots in the African-American church. She even sneaked almost pure gospel songs onto otherwise secular records, including “People Get Ready” on Lady Soul and “Are You Sure?” on her very first Columbia album, The Great Aretha Franklin. One of the most revealing anecdotes about Aretha’s roots came from Carole King, who with her then-husband Gerry Goffin wrote “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” King remembered that when Goffin came home with the great news that they had been asked to write a song for Aretha Franklin, the first thing she did was to sit at her piano and start hammering out gospel chords.
But in acknowledging Aretha’s roots in gospel and the African-American church, a number of the people memorializing her went too far and succumbed to the disease I call “first-itis,” the tendency of biographers to say that the person they’re biographing was the first one to do something even though there were plenty of people who did it before them. The Rev. Al Sharpton appeared on MS-NBC the day Aretha’s death was announced and said that she was the first person to bring the sounds of gospel to the pop music charts. Nonsense. There are many aspects in which Aretha Franklin was a trailblazer, but that wasn’t one of them. Dinah Washington had done it before her. So had Ray Charles, whose 1954 single “I Got a Woman” was called the first gospel-derived song to become a pop hit in the on-the-spot memorials when he died.
Indeed, the first example I can think of (and I’m hedging here because someone with even more knowledge of musical history than I may be able to come up with an even earlier one) of a singer bringing the sounds of gospel to the hit parade was in 1941, when Sister Rosetta Tharpe (another one of those names in music history that if you don’t already know her, you should) left her career as a gospel singer, joined Lucky Millinder’s swing band and had a hit in “Shout, Sister, Shout.” She followed it up with “That’s All,” a piece she’d already recorded as a gospel song with just her acoustic guitar, and redid it with Millinder, playing an electric guitar and rocking it out. Films exist of Tharpe playing these songs with Millinder, and while he stands in front of a tight-knit band of neatly attired Black men in identical suits, sitting behind music stands reading an arrangement, Tharpe looks like she’s beamed in from 20 years later. She looms over the band, holding a huge guitar and playing as loud as they are, rocking out in time to the music and playing stabbing lead guitar parts to her own voice. (Among other things, Sister Rosetta Tharpe invented shredding.)
What Aretha did do that was unique was bridge the wall that had traditionally existed between the gospel audience and that for Black rhythm-and-blues. Tharpe had tried it, but after a few years in the secular music world doing ribald novelties like “I Want a Tall, Skinny Papa” she went back to gospel and never looked back. Sam Cooke tried it and literally got booed off the stage. A few months before his still-mysterious death in 1964, Cooke’s friend Rebert Harris, who had recruited him as his replacement in the Soul Stirrers in 1951 and then returned to the group when Cooke left, saw him in the audience at a Soul Stirrers concert and called him to the stage to join in. The response was a lot of shocked screams from the audience, cat-calls and fortissimo denunciations like, “Get that blues singer off the stage! This is a Christian program!”
So when Aretha decided at the height of her soul-star career to return to gospel music and make the Amazing Grace album for Atlantic in 1972 — recording it live at the New Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles with the church’s regular choir backing her — it was a major risk to her career. Would the church audience accept a woman who, despite her roots and status as the daughter of one of the country’s most influential Black ministers, had become a celebrity singing blues-soul laments about being part of a chain of fools? Would the non-church audience, including the white people who’d taken up her music and learned to cherish it, buy an album of religious songs? As things turned out, it sold more than two million copies and became the most commercially successful album Aretha ever made. It also won Aretha the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance. She was revered enough in her own community that she could take the stage in a church and not only not get booed off, but move the audience and sell them records.

Aretha’s Limitations

Another silly thing Rev. Sharpton said about Aretha on MS-NBC was that “she could sing anything.” She couldn’t. On the 1998 Grammy Awards telecast she proved there was a sort of music she couldn’t sing — opera — when for some unearthly reason she was drafted to replace an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and sing the big tenor aria, “Nessun dorma” (“None shall sleep”), from Puccini’s last opera, Turandot. Singing a piece in an idiom totally unfamiliar to her, in a language she didn’t understand, and which had been written for a man, Aretha came up with a messy performance that was a testament to her professionalism, her sense of responsibility and her determination that, in the old showbiz axiom, “the show must go on.” What it wasn’t was great music.
Nor — much more oddly — could Aretha sing jazz. That’s surprising, especially since Dinah Washington, whose career anticipated Aretha’s in so many respects, was a superb jazz singer. Whether on those early Columbia records on which John Hammond was trying to turn her into the next Billie Holiday, or a later piece like her version of “Moody’s Mood for Love” (the vocalese piece by Clarence “King Pleasure” Beeks based on James Moody’s recorded jazz improvisation on Jimmy McHugh’s song “I’m in the Mood for Love”) on what’s otherwise one of her best later Atlantic albums, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), she simply didn’t feel the softer, subtler rhythms of jazz. She needed the rock-solid rhythms of gospel, R&B and soul to be at her best, and she knew it. Hammond acknowledged in his autobiography that as many jazz musicians as he tried to pack into her studio bands, “Aretha always insisted on having a rock drummer.”
Aretha Franklin did the best work of her career in the late 1960’s, on her first three albums for Atlantic Records. Later she could still sing beautifully, and within her limits she commanded a wide range of material, from romantic ballads like “With Pen in Hand” to rockers like “Sister from Texas.” But her career at Atlantic trailed off in the 1970’s and her final album for the label, Aretha La Diva, was an embarrassing collaboration with Black songwriter and bandleader Van McCoy, best known for his instrumental “The Hustle.” She switched to Clive Davis’s Arista label in the early 1980’s, and Davis threw her into some unsuitable collaborations — duets with white singers George Michael and Elton John and a whole album with Luther Vandross, Jump to It, that was as lame as Aretha La Diva. It might have seemed that Aretha’s career as a creative musician was over and it was time to greet each new album with, “Remember her when … ?”
Then she did another return to her roots, making the double album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism in 1986 and bracketing it with the 1985 release Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and a 1987 album simply called Aretha. Who’s Zoomin’ Who began with the hit “Freeway of Love” and also included the feminist duet “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” with Annie Lennox of Eurythmics (which appeared on a Eurythmics album as well). While she could have used a stronger duet partner than George Michael on “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” on Aretha — her supercharged Black gospel voice totally wipes the floor with Michael’s British white-boy whine — Aretha has one intense song after another: “Jimmy Lee,” a searing cover of “Jumping Jack Flash,” a song oddly called “Rock-a-Lott” (as in, “I like to rock a lot,” which she did), and one of her quirky covers of a white show tune, Burton Lane’s and E. Y. Harburg’s “Look to the Rainbow” from the 1946 musical Finian’s Rainbow.

Aretha: Down to Earth

One of the biggest things I like about Aretha Franklin is how down-to-earth she was. It’s a testament to her strength not only as a musician but as a human being that she lived to be 76. She kept enough faith in the values she’d learned in her dad’s church that she didn’t drink, smoke or drug herself to an early death the way Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Judy Garland did before her or Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston (whose mom Cissy Houston was a member of the vocal trio, the Sweet Inspirations — itself a gospel-derived name! — that sang backup for both Aretha and Elvis Presley) and Amy Winehouse did later. And for the most part she was able to keep her private life private; like Ella Fitzgerald, another great African-American voice who avoided the pitfalls of superstardom, lived to a great age and had all the rewards, artistic and commercial, to which her talents entitled her, she lived her life quietly, appearing in public only when it was time to sing, and kept from being dragged through the tabloids.
Another fascinating thing about Aretha Franklin is that she knew exactly what she was worth and demanded to be paid accordingly. According to John Hammond, after she left Columbia some of the company’s executives decided to dub additional string and brass parts on her Columbia recordings to make them sound more like her Atlantic hits. “I was heartily against it, which cut no ice,” Hammond recalled. “Aretha was equally against it, which did. Believing that Columbia had violated her contract by altering the original accompaniments of her records, she sued. The out-of-court settlement cost the company lots of money.”
Aretha’s determination to be paid what she felt she was worth turned up again in 1970, when rock promoter Bill Graham decided to hire her for the Fillmore West in San Francisco. She learned what he was planning to pay her and said no way. Only after Atlantic offered to record her Fillmore West gig for a live album did Aretha agree to play there because the fee for the recording, added to Bill Graham’s offer, sweetened the pot enough to make the job worth her while. With the hot R&B band of saxophonist King Curtis (which accompanied Aretha as well as playing the opening set — and giving Atlantic a live album of him as well), Aretha’s Live at the Fillmore West turned out to be one of the most powerful records of her career.
Knowing her audience, she trotted out a lot of her covers of white rock songs — Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and David Gates and Bread’s “Make It with You” — and turned up the emotional temperature on all of them. (Her cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which returns the song to its gospel roots, is especially beautiful.) She also does some songs from the Black tradition, including a version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” even faster, angrier and more assertive than her studio recording; singing the original flip side of “Respect,” the neo-blues “Dr. Feelgood,” and doing her then-current singles — her cover of Ben E. King’s “Don’t Play That Song” and her own “Spirit in the Dark.” The surprise guest appearance of Ray Charles joining her on “Spirit in the Dark” is just frosting on an already incredibly rich cake.
Aretha’s determination to assert herself financially as well as musically came out again in 2011, when she went to war against Warner Brothers over the proposed release of a documentary film of the making of her 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace. The film had been shot during the original rehearsal sessions and live concerts, but the original director, the late Sydney Pollack, wasn’t able to complete a releasable version because of problems synchronizing the picture and sound. Just before his death Pollack gave the footage to producer Alan Elliott, who put a releasable version together and announced it would be released in 2011. Aretha sued him for using her likeness without permission. Warners, which had also owned Atlantic Records in 1972, claimed that Aretha’s original contract authorized them to release the film without additional payment.
In 2015 Warner Bros. announced that Amazing Grace would be screened at upcoming film festivals in Telluride, Toronto and Chicago. Aretha immediately filed for injunctions to block the film’s public showing and announced that her price for the rights was $1 million, non-negotiable. When a judge in the case granted her injunction against the Telluride festival, Aretha issued a public statement saying, “Justice, respect and what is right prevailed and one’s right to own their own self-image.” Warners offered to screen the film privately for Aretha, hoping that seeing it might persuade her to allow its release. She refused.

Aretha’s Legacy

Perhaps the greatest legacy Aretha Franklin leaves behind is a huge multi-racial audience for the raw, intense, emotional singing of African-American artists drawing on the gospel tradition. In fairness to the “suits” at Columbia Records who treated her so ineptly in the early 1960’s, it’s not all that clear that there would have been the white market for Aretha’s unvarnished soul in 1961 that there was in 1967. It’s arguable that white listeners had to be “prepped” by Motown’s pop-soul — Motown made great records that drew on the gospel-soul tradition, but Berry Gordy and his producers shaved down the rough edges of their artists and made records that soothed rather than seared — to accept the real deal.
Aretha Franklin was the right artist at the right time to break down the walls that had existed between Black and white music. Earlier singers like Nat “King” Cole, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Mathis and Sam Cooke had cracked the white market, but only by fusing their tradition with the soft, romantic sounds of the white crooners. Even Ray Charles, with his roots in the gospel tradition, only became a mega-seller to white audiences when he largely abandoned original R&B material and applied his soul style to white pop and country songs. Dinah Washington and Otis Redding might have brought the pure soul style to mass white audiences, but they died too soon — Dinah of a prescription drug overdose in 1963 and Otis in a plane crash in 1967.
Though a lot of the baby divas — white, Black and Latina — who clog the charts today have been claimed as Aretha’s heirs, there are surprisingly few singers around who have truly built on her style. Jill Scott, a powerful soul singer whom I remember seeing on a TV tribute to Aretha and thinking was the only other artist on the program who deserved to be on the same stage with Lady Soul, is one. So is Jennifer Hudson, whose star-making turn in Dreamgirls — which in its way is a musical about what might have happened if a singer with the power and “edge” of Aretha had found herself stuck in a pop-soul group like the Supremes — got people saying “the next Aretha” about her.
And one of the biggest surprises I’ve had listening to music lately has been a Black gospel singer named Marbisa. I was in the home of someone who had on a “Christian rock” station, and I was startled that in the middle of the musical pablum that is most “Christian rock” I was suddenly hearing a great soul voice belting out a song called “Unfinished.” However, like Cassietta George of the Caravans — a contemporary of Aretha’s who could have had a comparable career had she not chosen to remain in the gospel world and avoid the temptation of a secular career — Marbisa seems content to remain in Christian music and not pursue the superstar soul career that would probably be hers for the asking.

Aretha Franklin proved that you could have it all — artistically, commercially, career-wise. She achieved incredible success and she did it on her own terms. She brought real, uncompromising Black gospel-soul to a white audience. She took this music out of the church and put it on the charts, and through her huge catalog of recordings her voice will live on. If you believe in Heaven, its music just got a whole lot better.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Harold Meyerson: Get Rid of Priestly Celibacy

I haven't contributed to this blog in some time, but I just found this in my e-mail inbox from veteran political commentator Harold Meyerson about how the Roman Catholic Church needs to get rid of priestly celibacy to stop the epidemic of pedophile priests. I couldn't agree more: I've long felt that if you demand as a condition of employment that you can't have any sort of normal sex life,  hetero or homo, it shouldn't be a surprise that you draw an awful lot of sexual weirdos to your profession.

Mark Gabrish Conlan


Meyerson on TAP

A Modest Proposal for Fixing the Catholic Church. By now, I must have read a dozen articles on the Pennsylvania grand jury’s revelations of the horrors and abominations that 300 Catholic priests inflicted over a period of 70 years on their parishioners, the vast majority of them children. Each of those articles offered various prescriptions on how the Church should deal with its pedophiles and sadists, how it should change its culture of clerical permissiveness.

None of those prescriptions, I fear, will really change anything, however—because they are providing answers to the wrong question. A serious effort to make the Church more decent can’t begin by asking how the Church should crack down on its miscreants. The first question those who seek to save Catholicism must grapple with is why the Church is so damned different. Why have there been more assaults and molestations in the Catholic Church than in the Eastern Orthodox, or the Episcopal, or Protestant denominations, or the other world religions? What Émile Durkheim wrote in his classic study of comparative suicide rates applies as well to the comparative rates of clerical abuse: They “can be explained only sociologically.”

And what is sociologically distinctive about Catholic clerics is that unlike clerics of other faiths, they must take a vow of celibacy. This has required the Church to drape a veil of secrecy over all the sexual activities—from long-term consensual adult relationships to the torture of children—in which its priests, being human, engage or struggle with or try to repress. The conjoined cultures of celibacy and secrecy narrow the field of clerical recruits—who already include the good and the occasionally holy who are found in the pulpits of all religions—but also to those who feel they must keep their sex lives secret, who fear to express their sexual desires openly, among whom we find, as the grand jury found, misogynists, pederasts, sadists, and everyday monsters. We find such people in many places, of course, but the fact that they congregate disproportionately in the Catholic priesthood suggests that the inextricably intertwined cultures of celibacy and secrecy is what draws them in. The faith’s core belief that sex is sinful (save, sort of, for married procreation) is thus what ultimately underlies the sexual depravity of so many of its priests. No church can survive an irony this corrosive, once that irony is known to all.

What the Church needs to change, then, are its core beliefs about women and sex. Given that doctrinal change takes some time, however, here are some handy concrete steps that the Church might take now to rid itself of its malevolent priests: First, eliminate the celibacy idiocy. That alone would bring a higher share of normal humans into the priesthood. Second, admit women to the priesthood, mandate that all seminaries go co-ed, and—following the maxim that it’s better to be safe then sorry—remove the current generation of priests and bishops to remote monasteries, supplanting them with the current generation of nuns and the new, non-celibate recruits of both genders. Triple the size of the College of Cardinals, with all the new recruits coming from orders of nuns and from prominent and humanistic members of the Church laity.

Francis, I’m a fan, but this is no time for dilly-dallying. Écrasez l'infâme and bring in the gals. ~ HAROLD MEYERSON