What I learned about writing from listening to Aretha Franklin

August 15, 2018
Category: Newsletters

Note: This post has been updated.

I feel I owe a lot to Aretha Franklin. I heard her version of “Respect” in 1967 when I was a college freshman playing in a rock-n-roll band. From that moment, until now at the age of 70, if I hear it on the radio or in the coffee shop, I listen to it to the very end as a sign of joy and, well, respect.

Because of Aretha — and her producers — the word respect is one that no man should ever forget how to spell. That riff in her song: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me” does not appear in the original version of the song, written and performed by the late great Otis Redding. I was introduced to the Otis version by Arnie Gemino, the lead guitar player and manager of our nine-piece white-guy soul band: the O.B. Williams Review, featuring the Sidewinders.

For a glorious summer in 1967, we played the seaside clubs in Newport, Rhode Island. Arnie loved James Brown and his Famous Flames and we were, let me say it, a pale imitation. But we drew crowds, mostly locals and Navy boys, but also some Australian yachtsmen competing for the America’s Cup. Some real musicians came to hear us, including Leslie West of The Vagrants and some members of the family band The Cowsills, who lived in Newport. It was fun, until we asked for a raise and got fired.

But I remember Arnie teaching us the Otis version of “Respect.” It was a strong song. For the vocals, you could only hear the growling, pleading voice of Otis, but you knew the band was behind him all the way, a group of men, thematically and actually, tired of being on the road, feeling a lack of respect from their women when they got home. The beat is driving and undecorated. The voice is insistent, but not coercive. He’s done the work, he’s brought home the money and he wants something in return. One cannot listen to it without feeling that respect is, in part, a euphemism for sex, a kind of transactional code of domesticity.

When I heard Aretha’s version, I did not immediately recognize it as a cover of Otis’s song. I’ve read that when Otis heard it, he offered the respectful opinion that “the little girl cut me.” The lyrics were different, the rhythm was different, the instrumental bridge was different. Now, instead, of a single male voice, we had the voice of a soul angel, with what sounded like a small army of female voices backing her up. A male complaint had been transformed into a feminist anthem. While her man was out on the road doing who knows what, she was left behind to keep house and home together. Now that he’s home, he owes her something. She is going to give him some money, and expects something in return. “Whip it to me,” she says with little ambiguity. She wants her “propers,” shortened to “props” in the next generation. And if he doesn’t get it, yes, she will spell it out for him.

At the first Unity convention, bringing together minority journalism organizations in Atlanta in 1994, I conducted a writing workshop. Later, I was told it took second place in an informal contest for the best workshop title. The winner came from a Native American panel: “What It Feels Like to be a Mascot.” My runner-up title was “What I Learned About Writing From Listening to Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.” I played live versions of some of my favorite R&B songs, with lessons along the way about the rhythm of sentences and the voice of the writer. I played a recording of the Otis version of “Respect” and was surprised to see how few in the audience had ever heard it before. Then I played “Aretha” and, yes, there was dancing in the aisles.

What Aretha and her team had accomplished is something in all creative arts we call “ownership.” Taking ownership in the wrong way (Michael Bolton trying to out-soul Percy Sledge in “When a Man Loves a Woman”) can lead to accusations of cultural appropriation — a nice euphemism for stealing. It’s complicated. Pat Boone did sound like he was ripping off Little Richard with “Tutti Frutti.” But Elvis, to me (and to James Brown), sounded like he was delivering the goods.

One of the most soulful songs ever recorded was the Otis version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” Its gentle beginning and its raucous gospel crescendo offer no evidence that the song was a standard performed by Bing Crosby in 1933. Otis took ownership. He owned it. He “made it his own” in the Randy Jackson cliché of “American Idol.”

This is one of the most important lessons for young journalists and writers everywhere: An idea is not a story. An assignment is not a story. A topic is not a story. It may take a while — quite a while — but the hard work of the writing process eventually transforms something vague into something focused. Once that focus is discovered — in an exploratory draft, a lead, a nut graph, a theme, a kicker — it can be rendered in the authentic voice of the writer. “That story sounded like you,” a friendly reader told me, and it would be hard to find a better compliment.

The other lesson for writers from Otis, Aretha and many other artists, going back to Shakespeare, is that the same text can be delivered to different audiences at the same time with different effects. The Bard, it is well known, wrote for at least two audiences at the Globe theater, the groundlings (standing or sitting in the cheap seats in front of the stage) and the more learned aristocrats — including the Queen! — sitting more comfortably in the back. A typical Shakespearean tragedy (take “Macbeth”) has gruesome violence, swordplay, and a little bawdy humor thrown in  — food for the groundlings — right next to some of the most elevated poetry in the history of the language. Food for thought.

As a boy I owned a record by Little Richard with this lyric: “Keep a knockin’ but you can’t come in… Come back tomorrow night and try it again.” The song, introduced by Louis Jordan in 1939, was performed in 1958 by a flamboyant “Negro” singer and piano player whose real name was Richard Wayne Penniman. At the age of 10, I could only hear was the frantic rhythm and the rave. Years later it occurred to me: How many doors were closed during the Jim Crow era to black men and women? Suddenly, “Keep a Knockin’” felt like a protest song written in code.

During the Civil Rights era, some music by African-American performers was more transparent about its social themes. “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke makes its case more directly. “Respect” by Otis, unveiled from the themes of domesticity, can be seen as a demand by a black artist, representing his people, for common decency and humanity. Aretha’s version had all of that with the added layer of anthemic feminism emerging for women of all colors in the tumultuous 1960s.

Aretha gets at it again when she tells her man: “You better think, think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me.”  In case you don’t get it, she doesn’t have to spell it out. Instead, she finds the word she needs and repeats it and kneads it into an American hymn: “Oh, freedom, freedom, freedom, yeah, freedom.”

Thank you, Aretha. We use the word “soul” to denote that space where our deepest human and spiritual identities survive. In my heart, you are truly its queen.