Respect to the best who ever picked up a mic.
Respect to the best who ever picked up a mic. YouTube screengrab

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I knew the awful inevitable had happened when I was awakened at 5:5FML o'clock in the morning by the dream-shattering strains of Aretha Franklin—who succumbed to pancreatic cancer in Detroit today at age 76. Two feet away on my bedside radio, she was blessing that old warhorse, "Amazing Grace," in her inimitable acrobatic yet none-more-soulful manner. (Yes, I fall asleep to KEXP every night, because music criticism never rests.) Here we go, I thought: Time to get our A+ mourning game soaring on the right angelic foot.

One could argue that Ms. Franklin was probably the greatest soul/gospel singer of the 20th century without too much dispute. (She was world-class with funk, R&B, and rock, too. Check her covers of the Rolling Stones' "[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction" and the Band's "The Weight" for proof of the latter.) Her voice could transition from gentle breeze to hurricane with astonishing power and finesse. Long before Prince, Aretha could evoke godliness and raunchiness in song with equal aplomb, at the flutter of an eyelash. Rarely has one voice possessed such potency and pliability.

When Aretha reaches the summit of her ecstatic emoting, she actually has the ability to scare me—not in some hokey, horror-film way, but rather with the unfathomable depths of feeling she summons. It's surely all too much for one person to project such volcanic yet nuanced sensations from that small instrument? How does one feel that hard and not explode? Even a staunch atheist has to consider the possibility of divine forces at work within Franklin's irrepressible mind and body. She used her gift not only to entertain millions, but also to inspire women to be independent and take no shit and to further the cause of civil rights. Her demeanor, voice, and piano playing all radiated an invincibility that was contagious.

If you will indulge me one last personal memory with Aretha Franklin's music before I cede the post to a small fraction of her fantastic canon, I'd like to recall my first encounter with the Queen of Soul's art. My parents took the family to a drive-in movie in suburban Detroit in the late '60s. I don't remember the film's title, but it was some adult shit I couldn't understand for the life of me; I was lost from the first minute. The only thing I can remember from it is "I Say a Little Prayer" on the soundtrack. That got my attention.

My pre-adolescent ears were dazzled by the swerving verve of Franklin's voice. The song put my uncomprehending heart on a trampoline of inchoate sentiments. I associated the tune with incomprehensible grown-up machinations—you know, like love, sex, and stuff—and wondered if I would ever be fortunate enough to grasp what that was all about. I was being baptized by a goddess without even realizing it. It felt indescribably wonderful.

Aretha Franklin will never stop earning our respect.

Tune in to KEXP right now to hear DJ Riz paying tribute to the Queen.

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