Aretha and Elvis: the burden of being authentic

Aretha was authentic – like Elvis. That scared the hell out of people. The truth always does….

“…we want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.” – Malcolm X.

At the end of his long running eponymous music program, the late Don Cornelius always ended his program with this reminder of three of life’s important elements:


Aretha Franklin 1968 (courtesy Wikimedia)

No one epitomized that Don Cornelius reminder of those important elements than Aretha Franklin, who died today and whose passing takes from us one who was undoubtedly the greatest singer of her generation and whose talent influenced singers ranging from Janis Joplin to Adele.

Aretha, like the iconic music figure with whom she, sadly, shares a death date, Elvis Presley, now belongs to the ages. But it’s important to consider what Elvis and Aretha share beyond the date of their passing into history. Both figures, enormously talented singers, achieved iconic status for bringing to a larger world music and cultural considerations that had long been ignored because racism and sexism dominated the worlds they were born into in ways that made their music carry more powerful messages – and greater burdens – than either of them would ever have intentionally pursued. Both of them, after all, wanted to be what they were – musicians and artists. Both of them strove to be authentic. At reaching that lofty (and perhaps Utopian) goal of authenticity, ultimately Elvis failed and Aretha succeeded.

The struggles of both have made for many volumes on Presley and will make for many on Franklin. Elvis, the King of Rock ‘n Roll. Aretha, the Queen of Soul. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” the guy who could be called the King of Literature reminds us. But on this sad day, it’s important to remember why those volumes have been or will be written.

Presley brought the power of both black Southern blues and gospel music to white audiences who had been “protected” from them by – oh, what’s the right terminology – yeah, right, racists. Nowhere is that better presented in his oeuvre than in this ditty from 1954 that set him on his path to world domination:


Unlike Elvis, Aretha didn’t find her voice right away. She struggled for a few years, misunderstood by a record company who saw her more Ella Fitzgerald/Sarah Vaughan than as the dynamo of feminism and racial equality that she became when turned loose by Jerry Wexler. Once she found her voice and message, though, she became both a civil rights and women’s rights spokesperson of the highest order, as this anthem attests:


After bringing rock ‘n roll to the masses with a series of brilliant songs (almost exclusively written by others, one must admit), Elvis, always a far more obedient fellow than his image suggested, retreated into making shitty movies and recording shittier pop songs written for those movies at the behest of arguably the worst manager in the history of the music business. There was another brief shining moment in 1968-69 when he made a “comeback,” but that degenerated into endless Vegas puffery and endless touring to bring that Vegas puffery to the masses. He died, an “old” young man at 42, worn out with being “the King.”

Aretha endured bad marriages, career ups and downs, and health problems. She reinvented herself, sometimes, brilliantly, sometimes, disastrously (have you listened to “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” lately?). Eventually, though it seems fairer to say inevitably, she became a legend, THE diva among divas, as evidenced here where she takes a song written by one of pop music’s greatest songwriters and shows how it should be sung with the songwriter standing three feet to her left:


What should we conclude?

Elvis lost Elvis and never found him again – and, in a way, that killed him as surely as the pharmacopoeia he ingested. One can infer that the bad jokes and the myths (Elvis is alive!) that his memory has endured for the last 40+ years are a reflection of the deep cultural question and have asked not “Where is Elvis?” but “Who is Elvis?” Perhaps those who love him in spite of his failing find themselves remembering more lines from Shakespeare:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;

Aretha fought plenty of demons of her own – but she never lost Aretha. Another thing: she never lost her deep religious faith – like Elvis, Aretha was a remarkable singer of gospel as well as secular music. Unlike Elvis, Aretha’s relationship with that music reflected a deep spirituality that Elvis yearned and strove for but ultimately failed to realize. Elvis love gospel music as music; Aretha loved it as a statement of her trust in a higher power that succored and sustained her – and allowed her to hold on to an authenticity throughout her life and career that Elvis had and lost and found again and lost again.

It’s how she got over.




About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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