“Aretha was the riot, was the leader”
In 1968 Nikki Giovanni wrote ‘Poem for Aretha’, an ode to Aretha Franklin, then a young singer who would later become her friend. Three months after Franklin’s death, Giovanni – one of America’s foremost poets and a major force in the Black Arts Movement – remembers her time with the Queen of Soul
16th August 2018 (Taken from: #32)
the Black songs started coming from the singers on stage and the dancers in the streets / aretha was the riot, was the leader, if she had said “come / let’s do it” it would have been done
‘Poem for Aretha’
“I wrote ‘Poem for Aretha’ years before I actually knew her. I would never have been that intrusive had I known her back in 1968 as I came to later. But of course I knew her music – we all knew Aretha’s music – and I was writing as a fan.
“I first heard her sing in my church in New York when I was young – her father, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, was a preacher and she would travel with him and sing in his choir. Her voice already had that smouldering quality.
“Reverend Franklin was the most important preacher in America at the time. If you were involved in the civil rights movement and you went through Detroit, you went through the Franklin home. Reverend Franklin was a great influence on [Martin Luther] King, who was always close with Aretha. Aretha gave a lot of money to the movement, although she was very quiet about it. At that point she had to be: Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, they all contributed, but they didn’t want it to be known because it would affect their ability to keep giving.
“The first time I properly met Aretha was when she came to New York for the recording of the TV show Soul! – a show I had appeared on – at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. By that time Aretha was at Atlantic Records where she started to sing more contemporary songs. At her previous label Capitol Records they had her singing show tunes, which was really stupid. It was terrible. But on Atlantic, working with [label co-founder and president] Ahmet Ertegun, she was sensational, it gave everybody a chance to hear her in a very different way.
I didn’t read ‘Poem for Aretha’ to her, can you imagine? What if she didn’t like it? We talked about everything else
“Aretha brought the house down that night at the Apollo. Ellis Haizlip, the producer of Soul!, asked if I’d brought a copy of ‘Poem for Aretha’ to the concert and if I’d like to read it to her. Can you imagine? What if she didn’t like it? So I met her, but I didn’t read ‘Poem for Aretha’ to her. We didn’t talk about the poem at all – we talked about everything else. From then on we’d catch up whenever she was in New York.
Then comes the eighth show on the sixth day the beginning / to smell like the plane or bus the if-you-forget-your-toothbrush in-one-spot-you-can’t-brush-until-the-second-show the / strangers / pulling at you cause they love you but you having / no love to give back
‘Poem for Aretha’
“I wrote ‘Poem for Aretha’ while on tour. I was listening to her music, and I realised nobody was talking about the difficulty of life on the road, especially as a mother. And life on the road is tough. Aretha meant so much to all of us and everybody wanted a piece of her: ‘Oh, come and sing’, ‘Oh, come and do this’. And you realise, maybe she needs a couple of days off. Nobody was dealing with her needs.
“That’s what I discovered when we met. She sang in front of an audience of thousands, but afterwards who’s she going to talk to? Who’s she going to laugh with? Who’s she going to say, ‘Oh boy, I love that song, did you hear the way I really knocked that out tonight?’ to? You need a friend. And I didn’t really see that friendship in Aretha’s life. Things changed after Aretha became my sorority sister. I am an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta [a sorority of college-educated women founded in 1913 at Howard University in Washington DC and dedicated to public service, with members across the US] and Aretha became one too. From then on she had a sisterhood that would come out for her wherever she was. It was nice because if there’s one thing that any entertainer knows it’s that you get lonely on the road. Our sorority’s colour is red: if you see a bunch of black women in red, you know they’re members of Delta. Did you see Aretha at the funeral? She had a pair of red shoes on that she had asked to be buried in and that really touched my heart. It felt right.
“Aretha died from pancreatic cancer. I’ve known cancer [Giovanni underwent treatment for lung cancer in the early 1990s, detailed in the 1999 book Blues: For All the Changes: New Poems] and by the end Aretha was in a lot of pain. And, though it’s not mine to give, part of me was glad when I heard that she was at peace.”
She’s more important than her music – if they must be / Separated – / and they should be separated when she has to pass out / before / anyone recognizes she needs / a rest and i say i need / Aretha’s music
‘Poem for Aretha’
“I know that Aretha has music that has not been put out. I just hope that somebody who loves her is in charge of releasing it, so that it is cared for, not just rushed out by somebody looking to make some money off her. The music meant so much to her and to all of us.
“My favourite musical moment was after Aretha had played a concert at the Lincoln Center in New York, and after the audience had gone home, I was on the stage with her and her cousin Brenda. Aretha sat down at the piano – she was a wonderful pianist – and began to sing, with Brenda offering some backing vocals.
“It was magical. I’ve had a seizure, which affects my memory, but I can still remember that night. I can see it, I can hear it, I don’t think I can describe it to you, but I remember…”
Nikki Giovanni is University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. Her latest book ‘A Good Cry’ (William Morrow) is out now. nikki-giovanni.com
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