A tribute to the Queen of Soul

A tribute to the Queen of Soul
Chris Aaland - 08/23/2018

I must admit that I didn’t realize who Aretha Franklin was through most of my childhood. But before I delve into my baptism into the Church of Aretha, I should probably tell the back story.

I was 12 years old when “The Blues Brothers” movie was released. At the time, Mom and my first stepdad, Victor Smith, were going through a messy divorce. Victor was the only dad I’d ever known – in fact,

I didn’t know he wasn’t my biological father. When she and Vic split up, Mom moved to Denver with my sister, Stephanie (unlike me, Steph was Vic’s flesh and blood); I stayed behind in Rifle with Victor. It broke Mom’s heart, but she didn’t want to tell me the truth. She knew I idolized Dad.

My year living alone with Vic in Rifle was a special one. He had recently started coaching high school football, basketball and track & field; I was an aspiring athlete ... a big fish in the small pond of Rifle Junior High sports. Vic and I lived the bachelor’s life, dining at home on franks and beans, or heading to Glenwood Springs for Mexican food and BBQ.

For financial reasons, Vic had to sell the house he built for our family on Grandpa’s ranch on Silt Mesa. We moved closer to town into a trailer that his then-girlfriend, Kathy, lived in with her daughter.

Life in the trailer park sucked. The kids were mean. The adults were worse. Every white trash stereotype you can imagine existed there. My saving grace was that Kathy’s trailer had HBO and a VCR. When she and Dad would go out on the town, I’d be left behind with an unlimited selection of movies. “The Blues Brothers” helped save me from Kathy’s verbal and emotional abuse.

I soon moved to Denver to live with Mom. I made new friends and started making all sorts of discoveries that pubescent boys make. I became friends with a kid down the street named Shawn Nichols. Shawn and I got into all the mischief you’d expect teen-age kids to get into – beer, then sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Shawn introduced me to punk rock, fast cars and a world beyond Wheat Ridge. We later roomed together as freshman at FLC, where he played football until suffering a debilitating hip injury.

Shawn’s dad had an old Cadillac that we’d cruise around in. The Caddy had a broken AM/FM radio, but a fully functional eight-track deck. In the glove box were a handful of tapes: “Led Zeppelin II,” “Bob Marley Live,” greatest hits packages from Wilson Pickett and Janis Joplin and, if memory serves me right, “The Blues Brothers” soundtrack (I could be wrong: 34 years is a long time, especially given the rate Shawn and I were killing brain cells back then). I’d later own the album on vinyl and CD.

We sought out some of the other artists who appeared in the movie: Aretha, James Brown, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker. We bought Atlantic Records compilations and assorted greatest hits packages that exposed us to even more of the R&B, soul and blues of our parents’ youth. When we started doing a midnight radio show together at KDUR in 1988, we immediately gravitated to KDUR’s extensive collection of dusty vinyl vintage soul.

Last Thursday, with news of Aretha’s passing, I played an extended set in her memory on the KSUT Afternoon Blend: “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Baby I Love You,” “Rock Steady,” “Freeway of Love” and a nod to the Blues Brothers with the version of “Think” that appeared in the film. I’d have hit on hits, too, but Stasia Lanier had already played many of them on the Morning Blend. I cried a lot that day.

Aretha was more than the Queen of Soul. She was an American icon who transcended genre. She could sing R&B, soul, gospel, jazz, the blues, rock, pop and even country (in her teens and twenties, she rearranged Hank Williams and John Hartford tunes into soul classics). She gave voice to the civil rights movement and, later, women’s rights. She sang at Martin Luther King’s funeral and, 41 years later, at the inauguration of the first African-American president. The daughter of a preacher, she gave birth twice before she was 17, survived spousal abuse, bad marriages, alcoholism and, despite all of those hurdles, gave voice to generations who didn’t have a voice. She entertained, educated and inspired. Race, religion, social status and age didn’t matter ... even a couple of drunken kids from the suburbs were welcome in her camp.

I crossed paths with several characters from Aretha’s orbit. One of the first musicians I ever interviewed was Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who played Aretha’s husband in “The Blues Brothers” and gave one of the movie’s brilliant performances leading up to her belting out “Think.”

Murphy, who used to play the old Farquahrts back in the early ‘90s, died this past June at 88. His professional career started in the late ‘40s, and he backed the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Little Junior Parker, Ike Turner, Koko Taylor, Sonny Boy Williamson, Chuck Berry and Buddy Guy.

I also went on hunting, fishing and backcountry pack trips with Lucius Burch Jr., who was best known as MLK’s trial lawyer. He was considered “the most liberal conscience in Memphis” for his work on conservation and civil rights issues. Lucius left us in 1996 at age 84. He got to hear Aretha sing at MLK’s funeral in 1968; I was but five days old when King was assassinated. Fast forward 15 years and that same trial lawyer walked the fields of Kansas beside me, chasing after pheasants and quail. A few months later, he flew me to the Bridger-Teton Wilderness for a two-week survival trip with his grandson. Lucius taught us important things like how to barbecue marmot and identify edible plants. He also taught us lessons in civil rights and nudged me down the path toward a more progressive worldview.

I suppose none of these rambling anecdotes means anything to you. But they do to me. And they’re helping me cope with a world without Aretha.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Email me at chrisa@gobrainstorm.net.

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