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'The Voice Of A Century': Michael Eric Dyson Looks Back On Aretha Franklin's Life

Aug 17, 2018
Originally published on August 17, 2018 3:29 pm

The world is mourning the loss of Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul died August 16 at the age of 76 from pancreatic cancer. Though her influence was felt throughout music, a critical part of her legacy lies in gospel, where she got her start. Author Michael Eric Dyson, who knew Franklin for 15 years and wrote an op-ed in The New York Times titled "The Church of Aretha Franklin," notes that Franklin had the "voice of a century."

"There have been many popes. Ain't but one Aretha Franklin," Dyson says, remembering the day that he saw the icon perform for the pontiff in Philadelphia back in 2015.

As Dyson tells it, Franklin had the voice to work within any genre, adding, "It embodied the emotional intensity that was gathered in a woman whose body bore the marks of her emotional suffering, but the joys and highs of black existence, the struggles, the protest, the resistance, the celebrations."

Dyson says that when Franklin first started to move away from the gospel world to make secular music, she was met with resistance. But while Sam Cooke and Ray Charles made the jump before her, "When Aretha's vocals got unleashed, they believed that God was everywhere."

Aside from music, Dyson knew Franklin as a well-read, curious person. He says she would call him up all the time with questions about politics, archaeology and more. She also knew how to tell a good joke.

"She had a tremendous sense of humor," Dyson says, recalling a time she told him about a humorous visit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made to her house as a child. "Aretha Franklin gave me that gift of knowing him intimately, vicariously."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

The world is mourning Aretha Franklin a day after the Queen of Soul died at the age of 76. Her influence, her genius were felt throughout music, and a critical part of her legacy is in gospel, where Aretha Franklin got her start.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRECIOUS LORD, TAKE MY HAND")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Precious Lord, please linger near.

KING: There she is singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." For more on Aretha Franklin's legacy in gospel, I'm joined in the studio by Michael Eric Dyson. He's a professor at Georgetown University. And he wrote an op-ed for The New York Times yesterday titled "The Church of Aretha Franklin." Good morning, professor Dyson.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Good morning.

KING: There is an anecdote in your op-ed in The Times that I just love. You write that in 2015, she invited you to see her, in Philly, perform for the pope...

DYSON: Yes.

KING: ...And you were real excited about seeing the pope.

DYSON: Right.

KING: But even though you knew Aretha Franklin and were friends with her, you were even more excited to see her perform.

DYSON: No disrespect to the pontiff...

KING: (Laughter).

DYSON: ...All rings kissed, all heads bowed. But pontiffs come and go. There have been many popes. Ain't but one Aretha Franklin. And that voice is not only a voice of a century. It embodied the emotional intensity that was gathered in a woman whose body bore the marks of her emotional suffering but the joys and highs of black existence, the struggles, the protests, the resistance, the celebration, the edifying impulses of black life, the unapologetic expression of her blackness at the heart of her Detroit existence that gets spread to the world. So I was just excited to see that again. And even in her early 70s, she could command, you know, such vocal majesty and power that the real royalty there - the real, you know, top of the echelon for me was the great, inimitable Aretha Franklin.

KING: Let me ask you about command because you write that her dad was a preacher. But he was not just any preacher. He was really something special.

DYSON: I mean, when you heard C.L. Franklin, if you didn't go to heaven that day, you wasn't going.

(LAUGHTER)

DYSON: He was an incredible person - one of the exemplars of what is known as whooping more vernacularly and colloquially - but the chanted sermon, where speech bursts out in song, where he would work up, (singing) you don't have me (ph). So you would stretch out and elongate the syllables and turn them, tunefully, into melodies that really captured the ears of many people listening. Tremendous intellectual foundation, deeply rooted in the Bible and in contemporary affairs. He was a contemporary - well older, even, than Martin Luther King Jr. and linked arms with him in the civil rights movement. In fact, the first "I Have A Dream" speech was given in Detroit, Mich., in the presence of thousands who had gathered there before he ran it for the second time in August in 1963 in Washington, D.C. So C.L. Franklin was one of those great figures. And in his literary and verbal womb, Aretha Franklin gestated for a while before she emerged full blown at 14 years old as a bronze wunderkind and a gospel genius in American society.

KING: Gospel genius. But you write - and this is so interesting - I didn't know this - there were a lot of people in the church who were, like, you stay a gospel genius. We don't so much - we don't want you to go out and do secular music.

KING: Yeah, you ain't serving the Lord out there. You know, some of these rigid divisions between the sacred and the secular. How you serve God and how you serve the world. But, you know, I've always believed that if God gave you the music, it's good. If it's not given by God, it's wack. So it can be gospel music, but if it's not inspired by the almighty. It's just going to be some words on a paper. But you can go, as Aretha Franklin did, as an evangelist for black identity, as an evangelist for feminist recognition. When she took Otis Redding's song - she turned it into a gospel, if you will, celebration of burgeoning feminist consciousness, racial pride. So

yeah, but there were a lot of people in the church who were skeptical - still are, you know? They don't say secular. They say, you doing that circular music. Yeah, it does go around in circles, but they really believe that, somehow, you sell out your soul because you're not singing for the Lord. And Sam Cooke before her - and then before him, Ray Charles - really blazed that path. But it was a lot of resistance and a lot of people looking askance and looking down their noses at what they felt was an inferior replica of the church. But when Aretha's vocals got unleashed, they believed that God was everywhere.

KING: We had a guest on yesterday who described her as kind of a polymath. She could do anything in music.

DYSON: Oh, yeah.

KING: There was a famous example of her, you know, at the last minute at an awards show getting up and doing opera because Pavarotti called out sick.

DYSON: Well, you know, what you got in your genes?

(LAUGHTER)

DYSON: What you - have you had milk that morning? Did you stay at the Holiday Inn? I mean, that's what she could do. At any point, she could do opera. And when she began, she was trying to experiment, so she sang a lot of blues, a lot of jazz. People didn't know in those early recordings - and she really experimented with a wide variety of musical genres to found her style. And finally, when she hit that niche and she hit that stride in the late '60s - I never loved a man the way I loved you, my Lord, it was all done - "Chain Of Fools" - it was all done - respect, it was all done. I mean, in the way that Otis Redding didn't know - when he heard her sing that song, he said, that girl done took my song.

KING: (Laughter).

DYSON: Oh, it's gone. It ain't mine no more (laughter).

KING: How long did you know Aretha Franklin?

DYSON: Oh, man, for about 15 years. You know, she - and, surprisingly, when I went to see her, I was shaking, of course - I'm before royalty. And she said, come on in here, Michael Eric Dyson. I listen to you and read you. I thought, but you're Aretha Franklin.

KING: (Laughter).

DYSON: I mean, you don't know me. I mean, I know you, of course, but you have - I mean, she was so well-read, very curious. A lot of people don't know that about Aretha Franklin. She'd call me up and ask me about geological and archaeological digs on biblical relics. I'm like, wow, what are you doing? And then she would talk about politics. And she was very curious about the world in which we live and very up-to-date and very well-read. And it was a joy to know her as a friend. And she had a tremendous sense of humor.

I mean - you know, I tell in the op-ed I would crack up every time she would tell me when Dr. King was a visitor at her house. And the maid would say, now, we've got some grits, and we've got some eggs, and we got some soichich (ph). And through context clues, Dr. King figured out that it was sausage. So in his, you know, beautiful baritone - (imitating Dr. King) now, I'll take those eggs, and I'll take those grits, and I'll take some of that soichich. (Laughter) And Aretha Franklin and I used to crack up like mad. Dr. King was an extraordinary man and a tremendous human being. And Aretha Franklin gave me that gift of knowing him intimately, vicariously.

KING: A talented woman and also a funny one. Michael Eric Dyson is a professor at Georgetown University. His new book is "What Truth Sounds Like: R.F.K., James Baldwin, And Our Unfinished Conversation About Race In America." Professor, thank you so much for your time.

DYSON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.