In 1939, the celebrated contralto Marian Anderson was denied the opportunity, by the Daughters of the American Revolution, to perform an Easter concert for an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. After much ado, other arrangements were made and she sang instead to 75,000 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Almost 70 years later, Aretha Franklin will sing to the multitudes at the inauguration of Barack Obama, a throng that is now anticipated to exceed 4 million. She performed at a concert post-Bill Clinton's swearing in, but this is on an altogether different plane. I can only imagine what it will feel like to be her on January 20. How do you even prepare for such an event?
Many people know that Aretha was the daughter of a Baptist preacher and that she had direct exposure to people like Mahalia Jackson. Although she was born in Memphis, her father's ministry took him to Detroit, and she became a lead singer in her father's choir at 12. Like a lot of singers with that kind of pedigree, she went from straight gospel to secular and finally to R&B which, if done properly, is something of a hybrid of the two.
I Never Loved A Man was Aretha's first million-selling song. Listen, and one gets a sense of absolute effortlessness, of a voice that seems to take wing and float from her being. Like Janis Joplin, she was not afraid to bare her soul to the world in regard to her suffering over men.
The song's bloodcurdling beauty was certainly due in part to Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, who in 1967 spirited Aretha away from Columbia Records, where she'd been packaged as a pop singer for seven years, teamed her with a wailing Muscle Shoals backing band that woos her note for note, and ripped the soulful intensity right out of her body for the rest of us to enjoy. As Wexler said, Atlantic was the "West Point for rhythm and blues," and clearly where she should have been all along.
Aretha, have the time of your life at Barack's inauguration. Sing your heart out, as you did for Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come. Oh yes it is.