Aretha Franklin – the legend, the singular voice, the Queen of Soul – is my dad’s first love.
My dad has loved Aretha Franklin all of my life. I’m sure her music was playing when I was in my crib.
I had just assumed that someone who loved Aretha as much as my dad had seen her in concert many, many times, but he hadn’t.
How could that be? This man who had stacks of Aretha on vinyl? This man who, when Aretha would come on the radio, would turn the volume all the way up, break out in a smile and say “Aretha!” with his whole body? This man who would then say to me, “Listen, baby. Listen to ReRe”? How could it be that this man had not seen his beloved Aretha sing his favorite songs live?
That had to change.
In 2014, it did.
Aretha Franklin performed at The Fox Theatre, one of her many times in Atlanta over her storied career. This time, my dad was there.
Aretha’s show was scheduled for early November, which was perfect. My dad’s birthday is Nov. 2. I got the tickets and crossed my fingers that her health would hold out (she has had to cancel before).
I wanted it to be a total surprise, but since my dad lives hours away on the Gulf Coast and still works, I had to tell him. He was elated. I did have one surprise, though – the location of our seats, fourth row, center.
The day of the concert arrived. My dad had come in town the night before. We hung out during the day and he would break out into the grins all day. He was excited. When it was time to get dressed for the show, my dad went all out. Despite a career in the military and a propensity to iron his jeans with a razor-sharp crease, my dad is pretty casual (jeans, golf shirt/t-shirt, baseball cap). This night, however, he had on a suit, a tie and best of all, a fedora. He was dressed to impress his girl.
We arrived at the Fox, showed the usher our tickets and she started leading us to the seats.
As we got closer to the front, my dad started slowing down, not from fatigue, but from confusion. After the usher took us the rest of the way to our seats, my dad sat down in shock and just looked at me. I whispered, “surprise.” He started looking at the stage, the microphone, the piano. He pointed to the stage and said in wonderment, “She’s going to be right there.”
We didn’t have to wait too long for the show to start. The big signal was her longtime love brought out her purse and placed it near the piano. Soon afterward, the lights went down, the band began to play and we all leapt to our feet. Then there she was, strutting on stage, fur coat on, stopping at the mic – directly in my dad’s line of sight. My dad was clapping, then he abruptly sat down. I wondered if his knees were bothering him, but he waved me off and gave Aretha his undivided attention.
During the concert, I was torn between looking at Aretha and looking at my dad. The look on his face is hard to describe. It brought tears to my eyes.
The concert was heaven. Her voice was on point – singing classic after classic, hers and others, in true Aretha fashion. And when she sat at the piano, well, that was something else. Her voice is so dynamic that sometimes, I forget just how talented of a musician she really is. She was engaging, telling stories about her many visits to Atlanta, her siblings attending Atlanta’s HBCUs; she changed fashions and best of all, she took us to church. The preacher’s daughter – that’s who my dad first fell in love with. My grandmother used to listen to the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father and famous in his own right, on the radio. Whenever my dad heard Aretha, who was only a teenager and a few years older than he, my dad would make sure his mom knew. “Your preacher’s daughter is on the radio,” he would say. That’s love, people.
As Aretha was singing her last song, people gathered closer to the stage, with arms raised hoping she would touch them. My dad was not among them. I urged him to, but he didn’t move. After the show as over, however, he eased up to the front and just touched the stage.
As we were walking back to my car, I asked him if he had a good time. He said, “Baby, that’s not the word for it. I was overcome. When I sat down, and you were asking if I was alright, I HAD to sit down.”
When we got home, he called my stepmother to tell her about it. He said other people were there to see Aretha, but we were so close, that we had an audience with the Queen. That’s how he saw it.
I told my stepmother that I was sorry, she might have to hear the story for the rest of her life. She just laughed and said “It’s alright. He loves her.”
When the reports surfaced that Ms. Franklin was “gravely ill,” the first person I thought of was my dad. How he shared his love and appreciation of Aretha with me and how consistent it has been all these years. I thought of how I had grown to appreciate her music (an 8-year-old can’t possibly understand “Respect” and “Natural Woman” like an adult can), and how it connects me and my dad. He nurtured my love of music and set the bar high.
Thank you, Aretha. Thank you, Daddy.
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