We’ve lost our queen, and no one else—nobody!—will be able to replace her. She was the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, dead at age 76. May she rest in power. As pop music critic and culture journalist Rashod Ollison wrote in her obit, “her music was more than just a rallying cry, more than a singular merger of gospel, jazz, the blues and whatever else the queen felt like tossing in at the time. At its best, Franklin’s music was as redemptive as a baptism. It saved lives, mine included, many times.” This excerpt from his memoir Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl shows how her music was a constant in his home, providing solace and coherence during the rough times of his upbringing.
As the shattered pieces of the marriage settled around her, Mama knelt at the altar of Aretha.
She played Amazing Grace, the legend’s landmark 1972 gospel double LP, seemingly every waking hour during the turbulent years of the marriage, the only years I remember. The album often played on Sunday mornings as we got ready for church.
The fiery, holy sounds of Aretha shouting the good news, shadowed by the Southern California Community Choir, sometimes filled the house well into the night.
Daddy wasn’t home much during the last two years of the marriage. Some of his things (his shoes, his clothes, many of his albums) disappeared. I didn’t know where he stayed. Clara Mae’s? Big Mama’s? Whenever he showed up, he and Mama fought.
Daddy, as usual, was drunk and the first to lay hands, shoving Mama against a wall, on the couch, on the floor. But she always fought back: kicking, scratching, and biting.
She clocked him in the head once with a phone. Her nostrils flaring, Mama set it down, carefully placing the receiver back on the base. Then she looked at us as we stood there scared and shocked.
“Y’all get somewhere and sit down,” she said, stepping over Daddy, as he moaned and writhed on the floor, holding his head.
But whenever Aretha was on, order seemed restored. Her majestic voice grounded us, especially Mama. After she came home from her job at Coy’s restaurant, where she prepared fancy salads all day, Mama often reached for Aretha.
The songs she played indicated her mood. If “Respect” or “(Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” rocked the house, her spirits were up; soaring ballads such as “Angel” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” meant she was reflective; moody cuts like “Ain’t No Way” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” meant she didn’t want to be bothered. So we tiptoed around her.
Even as a child I gathered that Aretha’s music, especially her classic Atlantic recordings, was an extension of church. The air changed. A sense of reverence rained down as her voice soared from the speakers. I straightened up and listened. Coupling the sky-ripping strength of Aretha’s voice with Mama’s warrior-woman presence, I felt protected in Daddy’s absence.
So much of Mama’s life was reflected and refracted in Aretha’s lyrics: the longing, the loss, the hope, the faith, the perseverance. In 1967, the year of the singer’s pop breakthrough, Mama turned seventeen. She entered womanhood with the Queen of Soul as a cultural guidepost.
Aretha was the natural woman/genius from down the block, world-weary and accessible, nappy edges and all on full display. She mingled the muddy funk of the Delta with the cosmopolitan sleekness of the North. And in her music, Mama seemed to always find a home. She admired other dynamic black female singers of her generation and played their music often. Diana Ross and Gladys Knight come to mind. But her reaction to their songs wasn’t the same as when Aretha sang. Mama swayed and rocked. She waved her hand in the air, the way she did in church. Sometimes she cried. In 1983, her marriage fell in sharp glittering pieces all around her. My oldest sister, Dusa, was fourteen; Reagan, the youngest, was five; and I was six. Garden Street was bleak, save for the aural sunbeam of Aretha singing through the surface noise of well-worn vinyl, assuring us that God would take care of everything.
About the Author
Rashod Ollison is an award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist. He has been a staff critic and feature writer for the Dallas Morning News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Journal News (Westchester, New York), Baltimore Sun, and Virginian-Pilot. He also wrote a music column for Jet magazine. He is the author of Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ollison lives in Virginia Beach. Follow him on Twitter at @ and visit his website.