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Michael Jansen: Leaving on a high note
September 07, 2018
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Last weekend the US staged very different funerals for two celebrities. Aretha Franklin was an internationally popular singer, pianist and songwriter whose life story captured the hearts of millions. John McCain, was a right-wing Republican Senator who survived more than five years of brutal captivity in North Vietnam and, during his five terms in the senate, occasionally veered from party policy to take a principled stand.

Franklin was born in 1942 in Tennessee into a large African-American family. Her father, a Baptist cleric, was the son of a poor tenant farmer living in rural Mississippi at a time the tide of anti-black racism was running strong.

McCain was born in 1936 into a privileged US naval family living in the US-controlled Panama Canal Zone. He grew up moving from naval post to naval post. McCain’s father and grandfather, for whom he was named, became admirals, McCain a naval pilot.

Although both were killed by cancer, the last rites of Franklin and McCain could not have been more different. Franklin’s funeral was a cheerful, music-filled celebration of her life; McCain’s a solemn goodbye to a man many admired without reference to his record of championing the projection of US military power, including wars in this region. Enough about McCain.

When she was 2, Aretha Franklin’s father, C.L. Franklin, a gifted preacher, was transferred to a church in the state of New York. Three years later he shifted to the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit in the Midwestern state of Michigan. Aretha’s mother played the piano and sang but died before the child was 10, leaving Aretha in the care of her father. Singer Mahalia Jackson, known as the “Queen of Gospel,” helped look after the many Franklin children.

Aretha’s father, his church, and Detroit in the sixties formed the girl’s character, drove her ambition, and set her on a course for life. C.L. Franklin was a popular preacher whose sermons were broadcast across the country, recorded and sold at music shops. His charisma and demand for “respect” for African-Americans made Aretha proud of being his daughter. He recognised her musical talents, arranged for piano lessons, and encouraged her to sing religious songs. He not only supported her decision at 18 to shift to rhythm and blues, he moved with her to New York as her manager. She had a well-trained, flexible mezzo-soprano voice, played the piano well, and often composed and arranged her own music.

Her career made a modest start in 1966 when she recorded Respect, which became an all-time hit. This was followed by Chain of Fools, Natural Woman, Think, and I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You). She subsequently recorded hundreds of songs, performed at scores of events, and sold 75 million records worldwide. She won multiple awards and honours and in 2008, Rolling Stone magazine called her the number one greatest pop singer of all time ahead of Elvis Presley.

Fans noticed that whenever she went on stage she carried her purse, often placing it on the piano where she could keep an eye on it. She insisted on being paid ahead of performances and stuffed the money, sometimes thousands of dollars, in her purse. For her, being paid in advance was a sign of respect, perhaps because fellow singers were cheated by theatre managers. As her stature grew as a musician, she collaborated with other artists, including Elton John, Whitney Houston and George Michael.

Franklin wore well-designed dresses and hats and trailed expensive furs, proof positive of affluence. She bore herself as though she was royalty but never lost her ability to connect with everyone. She sang at the White House and in small towns in Michigan. She rode in a late-model Cadillac and, after a colleague died in an air crash in 1984, avoided air travel.

Like her father, she insisted on “respect” for herself and her community. Having grown up in racially-divided and often violent Detroit, Franklin became a political activist involved in civil rights for Afro-Americans, Native Americans, and indigenous peoples everywhere as well as a women’s rights campaigner. Her songs Respect and Natural Woman were anthems of these movements. In 1968, she sang at the funeral of assassinated black civil rights leader Martin Luther King and at the 2011 dedication of his memorial in Washington. 

She performed at the inaugurations of presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Clinton awarded her the National Medal of Arts, George W. Bush the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour. She sang for South African freedom fighter and president, Nelson Mandela.

She had a chaotic personal life. She married twice and was the mother of four boys. Both unions ended in divorce. She struggled with weight, medical problems, family issues and finances. Her father was shot during a burglary in 1979 and died in 1984.

Franklin’s final performance was in November 2017 in New York City during Elton John’s 25th anniversary concert for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Early this August, she was said to be gravely ill with pancreatic cancer and died at home on the 16th.

Her funeral, broadcast on satellite television was an eight-hour jamboree bringing together family members, friends, musicians and fans. Black civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, a friend of 60 years, warned the throng, “If you leave here today and don’t register to vote, you’ll dishonour Aretha,” who was a registered Democrat and no friend of Donald Trump.

Performers on stage swayed to the music while members of the crowd danced in the aisles to celebrate the Queen’s gifts and graciousness.

Bill Clinton delivered a 15-minute tribute, stating that he and Hillary had been “Aretha groupies,” listening to her songs while at university and law school. He said, “She lived with courage, not without failure but overcoming her failures. She lived with power, not without weakness but overcoming her weaknesses.” He joked when he said he was glad to view her in her coffin in a fashionable dress.

A decade before her death, she said, “Music is my thing, it’s who I am. I’m in it for the long run. I’ll be around, singing...Having fun all the way.”
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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