NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, August 21st. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from member-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.
CAL THOMAS, COMMENTATOR: What does a white boy from the white suburbs of Washington, D.C., have to say about the passing of soul singer Aretha Franklin? More than you might think.
REICHARD: Commentator Cal Thomas now on the making of a classic.
THOMAS: At 16, I was a DJ on a local radio station, playing the rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop recordings of the day. Many of the artists were black.
Richard Penniman—aka “Little Richard”—once said that white kids would have Pat Boone’s albums on the top of their dressers to fool their parents, but the records of black artists hidden inside the dresser drawers.
Aretha Franklin’s soulful music helped lead the way. Black artists, especially gospel singers, influenced Elvis Presley and other white singers of the day, who mimicked their style and artistry, and then presented it to white audiences—many of whom would not have accepted music sung by blacks.
Aretha Franklin’s soaring voice touched every part of one’s anatomy—from head, to heart, to soul. And it soon became a vital part of the civil rights songbook.
It was my privilege to see many of these performers in person, including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Duke Ellington and their orchestras—plus Ray Charles and Cab Calloway.
I saw many others on TV and in film, including Nat “King” Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., and Diana Ross and The Supremes.
Little Richard tells a story about how he and other black artists would write songs only to see the name of a white label owner or producer credited with their authorship, resulting in royalties going to them. That left black artists with little to nothing.
Aretha Franklin suffered similar inequities. Take her most famous song, “Respect.” It was written by the late Otis Redding, but as The New York Times reported, “…every time the song is played on the radio, Mr. Redding’s estate … has been paid. Ms. Franklin never was.”
I count two of Franklin’s performances among my favorites. One is her role as a waitress in the cult hit “The Blues Brothers,” starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Franklin sings “Think” in a scene so fantastically choreographed that it would have been a showstopper on the Broadway stage.
My other favorite performance is a duet with Tony Bennett titled “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” If you haven’t seen it, go to YouTube. I tear up every time I watch.
The opening lyric goes:
How do you keep the music playing?
How do you make it last?
How do you keep the song from fading
How will we keep Aretha Franklin’s music from fading? By playing it over and over again and introducing future generations to it, as we might any other classic. Hers is a story in song and a life that inspired and influenced millions.
That’s not a bad epitaph for anyone.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Cal Thomas.