Vancouver Zeitgeist
Reflections on Vancouver, British Columbia and other topics, related or not


R.I.P. R&B

Was rhythm and blues already dead
or did Aretha Franklin’s funeral kill it?

September 8, 2018

Was rhythm and blues already dead or did Aretha Franklin’s funeral kill it?

A lecherous bishop gropes an overrated singer as a disgusting piece of
hypocritically and opportunistically racist filth looks on—and the Franklin family
complained about someone who advocated self-responsibility.


Was it the eulogy that dishonoured Aretha Franklin, as her family claimed? If Reverend Jasper Williams argued the case for black self-responsibility, his message certainly clashed with official ideology. Of course the double standards of that ideology allowed the execrable presence of Jesse Jackson Jr. But shouldn’t the Franklins at least have objected to the groping bishop, the Catholic establishment’s latest gift to anti-Catholic derision?

Well if nothing else Charles H. Ellis III’s hetero, Pope Francis might argue. But what about Chuck’s bonhomie with Action Jackson, not just a co-sexual opportunist but a celebrated racist as well?

And if all that gets a pass, how the hell could the Franklins ignore that stinking music? Shit performances by voiceless Ariana Grande, boringly, boringly self-indulgent Stevie Wonder and any-old-shit-from-me-will-do Chaka Khan. If that’s the state of R&B now, the music needs a funeral of its own.

But some interesting news that came out of Franklin’s death involves Amazing Grace, the 1972 album recorded with a gospel choir at a church service. There’s talk of releasing a film taken at the concert.

One song, Precious Memories, might be her best-ever track. Aretha outdoes Aretha in a performance that emphasizes not only her gospel roots but the inter-relation of so much black American music. Actually the rest of the album isn’t nearly as good. That’s partly due to the clutter of Latin percussion, an over-used fashion of the time and especially surprising given Bernard Purdie’s participation. (Purdie has, however, meshed really fucking well with Latino musicians elsewhere.)

Gospel doesn’t necessarily need percussion because the phrasing so strongly accentuates rhythm (as heard for example in Mahalia Jackson, whose favourite singer, BTW, was Franklin’s mother). But when gospel does use percussion, it’s most effective with tambourines, hand-clapping and/or solid drumming on a standard kit.

There might be considerable dissension about the title track, too. Judy Collins once made a big huge hit out of Amazing Grace, something that likely won’t be allowed again for any Christian song. But does the melody suit Franklin’s note-bending histrionics? Maybe hoping to combine her commercially successful gospel style with a Christian song that had once actually been a hit she showed, hardly for the first time, bad judgement in repertoire. The pentatonic scale just doesn’t lend itself to expansive black interpretation—at least not usually, although sometimes.

Maybe Franklin’s 1972 concert could have substituted another Christian hit song, rearranged for her voice and the large choir.

Following the deaths of Ray Charles and James Brown, Franklin’s passing marks the end of R&B’s secular trinity. Of course their music lives on—but in recordings, not so much in living influences. Not if that funeral’s crap performances offer any indication.

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