It’s incredible to witness someone be so much better at a particular profession than anyone else that she actually comes to signify that vocation, seemingly for the rest of time.
Michael Jordan was like that for pro basketball, though even MJ now might one day be usurped by LeBron James. James Brown was the undisputed hardest working man in show business for much of the 20th century, though now his artistic offspring, Michael Jackson and Prince, get most of his shine. But Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday at the age of 76, was always the most towering figure amid a crowded field of big-voiced divas. And it’s hard to imagine that ever not being true.
It’s not just that she was highly successful over the course of several decades — she won 18 Grammys, charted 112 singles, and sold 75 million records. Aretha Franklin, like all awe-inspiring singers, was both a great artist and a singular athlete. The wonder of her voice was that it could soothe your soul (or reduce you to tears) while also wowing you with its sheer physical power and dexterity. She performed feats that could not be approached by mere mortals. Her music expressed the full spectrum of human emotion, but her voice verged on super human. There was simply nobody else like her.
And she knew it. Aretha Franklin was famously competitive, right up through her final years. In 2014, when asked to assess the latest generation of divas, she was deliciously subtle in her thinly veiled disdain, praising Taylor Swift for her “beautiful gowns” and not-so-politely declining to comment on Nicki Minaj. In the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, she was dismissive, or downright hostile, to a crop of A-list would-be rivals, including Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, and Celine Dion. Aretha was the best, and was willing to fight to be the best — even though nobody dared to pick a fight with her. Who in the hell would try to out-sing Aretha Franklin? It would be like trying to punch-out a mountain.
Over the next several days and weeks, people will take stock of Franklin’s legacy, though her impact on modern pop is so profound that it will be impossible for any one person to do it justice. So, I would just like to share my favorite Aretha Franklin performance, and humbly add it to whatever overstuffed playlist of Aretha highlights you’re presently blasting.
It’s from her concert at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, which took place four months after her shows in San Francisco, later released as the excellent live album, Aretha Live At Fillmore West. As she was at the Fillmore, Franklin was backed by the legendary saxophonist King Curtis (who was murdered just two months after the Montreux gig) and his band, the Kingpins. Franklin herself also plays piano on several tunes, including my personal highlight, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
A number of artists recorded “Bridge Over Troubled Water” after Simon & Garfunkel released it as the title track of their 1970 swan song, including Elvis Presley, who laid down his version in the summer of ’70 and swiftly made it a centerpiece of his successful show in Las Vegas. But as good as Elvis’ version is, he wasn’t Aretha. And Art Garfunkel, as lovely as his voice sounds on the original recording, sure as hell is not Aretha. This was the biggest of big pop anthems that required the biggest voice on earth to do it justice.
Franklin didn’t put her own spin on the instantly iconic ballad until the following year, at the 1971 Grammys. It’s a good, if somewhat muted and laid-back performance. She was still finding her own way into an instant pop touchstone. She also issued it as a single that spring — which elaborated the song’s inherent gospel influences and transformed Paul Simon’s “end of the ’60s” lament into a full-fledged praise hymn — scoring a Top 10 pop hit. And then she issued the song again in 1971, this time a fiery live version from the Fillmore West album.
But my favorite instance of Aretha singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is from Montreux. Actually, it’s really hard to pick just one performance from this concert — she also murders “Call Me,” and she hilariously exits and returns to the stage during a climactic, barn-burning rendition of “Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand.” But “Bridge” always moves me the most.
For starters, Aretha doesn’t even sing for 99 seconds — she vamps beautifully on the keys, just to let you know that she could have been Elton John, too, if she had given a damn about also competing against the piano men. (It’s probably longer than 99 seconds, as this grainy clip taped off some anonymous Swiss person’s TV cuts in during the extended intro. Either way, it’s necessary to remind ourselves that Aretha was also a really good piano player.)
Then Aretha starts singing. If you’re like me, it’s impossible not to compare what she’s doing to what Art Garfunkel did. In the Simon & Garfunkel version, the part when Garfunkel sings “…and pain is all around” always chokes me up. He’s a friend offering solace, but you can tell he’s not exactly in the best way, either. He’s trying to be strong, but he can’t help but expose his inner pain.
Aretha does not sound weak. She is not praying to God for deliverance. She is the voice of God.
When Simon & Garfunkel perform “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the final “sail on silver girl” verse seems superfluous after that “pain is all around” verse — the song’s emotional peak has already been reached. But when Aretha does it, that last verse feels like a legitimate climax. As a listener, you feel yourself ascending toward the divine. She’s reaching out, extending herself to give all of humanity a big bear-hug. “Your time has come to shine / all your dreams are on their way,” she sings, and you believe her, because her voice has automatic authority when it comes to such matters. She sounds immortal, and this is a relief, because what is immortal can’t ever die.