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.

Top Shelf

Loco-motion, Chatham County & Baracutanga in Buckley
Loco-motion, Chatham County & Baracutanga in Buckley
By Chris Aaland
06/13/2019

“More cowbell!” Will Ferrell famously shouted in a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Well, dust them bells off because Grand Funk Railroad comes to the Sky Ute Casino Resort at 8 p.m. Saturday on its 50th anniversary tour.

Best of the fest, Tab Benoit and Naughty Professor
Best of the fest, Tab Benoit and Naughty Professor
By Chris Aaland
06/06/2019

The 14th annual Pagosa Folk’n Bluegrass rolls onto Reservoir Hill this Friday through Sunday, bringing a host of bluegrass and indie folk bands to the region and offering the best camping/music combo festival around.

Rockin' out, Diggin Dirt and Railroad Earther
Rockin' out, Diggin Dirt and Railroad Earther
By Chris Aaland
05/30/2019

Once upon a time, landscaping was my life. 

Iron thrones, iron horses, Jewell and Denver
Iron thrones, iron horses, Jewell and Denver
By Chris Aaland
05/23/2019

Many of you have taken a few days to digest the final episode of “Game of Thrones.” I certainly have.

Read All in Top Shelf

Day in the Life

It's Aliiiiive!
It's Aliiiiive!
By Stephen Eginoire
06/13/2019

For most of the year, the idyllic waters of the Animas Animas turns into a heaving, surging, icy torrent of fresh River flow lazily downstream, meandering through snowmelt.

Strainer things
Strainer things
By Stephen Eginoire
06/06/2019

As the Animas River once again roars to life, the features that define its rushing waters follow suit. Common along its boulder- strewn banks are piles of debris and detritus that create what is effectively known as a strainer.

Wet and wild
Wet and wild
05/30/2019

This past month has seen more than its share of brooding skies and torrential downpours. 

Cyclists of the Iron Horse: A Field Guide
Cyclists of the Iron Horse: A Field Guide
By Stephen Eginoire
05/23/2019

It’s everyone’s favorite bike-frenzied weekend, the 48th annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic!

Read All in Day on the Life