It was the evening of June 4, 2000. My mother and I were sat in the War Memorial Auditorium in Greensboro, North Carolina. Like everyone else is the packed auditorium, we were awaiting the appearance and performance of Aretha Franklin. The level of anticipation was palpable and every time it appeared as if someone was about to walk on stage, my mother would eagerly move to the edge of her seat.
That June was my parents’ 25thwedding anniversary. As a gift, I had offered to take them to see Aretha in concert. Only my mother took me up on the offer, and so it became another one of those outings that was just the two of us. Looking back on it now, I’m so grateful to have been able to be part of this experience with her, and to have been able to provide such a gift.
When Aretha did finally step onto the stage, the ground was already on its feet. At the first glimpse of the Queen, my mother gasped and held her breath for what seemed like the entire opening number. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face as the Queen of Soul proved beyond a shadow of a doubt why she, and only she, held that title.
I’ve been thinking about that evening a lot over the past week or so when the news first broke that Aretha was gravely ill. It’s an odd thing, I think, when a celebrity or artist dies. It’s strange in that this person has been present in your life, in way or another, yet was not a part of your life at all in the traditional sense. It’s only in those moments of performance, like the concert, during which your paths actually cross.
Yet Aretha sang and was a part of our country’s history. The fact that one can simply use her first name without confusion or lack of awareness by anyone is testament, I think to her impact on our culture. Few have a voice so powerful, so expansive, and so indescribably wonderful.
It’s interesting to me how she not only sang our country’s history, but also our personal histories. Playing her music conjures up specific memories for me, from heartbreaks to triumphs. Funny how those songs instantly transport me across time and space to a particular situation or set of emotions. A wealth of memories is accessed, most poignant and some bittersweet.
And since her death a few days ago, her songbook has been playing on a loop in my head. I am at once taken on a trip down memory lane while simultaneously marveling at her vocal prowess. I turn over the lyrics, notes, and memories in my head and marvel at the ability of our brains to process all of this information simultaneously.
And I marvel at the legacy of a woman, an artist, who touched the lives of so many.