Aretha Franklin and “Never Grow Old” (II of II)

Mavis Staples, in turn, put me in mind of Aretha Franklin’s mindblowing live recording that goes these days under the title Aretha Gospel. Recorded at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit in 1956, it is one of the earliest Franklin recordings and telegraphs the stylistic and vocal greatness that she would later achieve in more secularized R&B, blues and pop music. What’s clear on Aretha Gospel is that however secular her later success has been, its roots are firmly, deeply planted in the gospel tradition, from which she derives the felt intensity of real spiritual experience that has so vividly animated most of her later work. Franklin was 14 years old when this recording was made, and though I expected that familiarity with the project over time would domesticate the novelty of her youth on this project, the more I listen to it the more difficult it becomes for me to comprehend the fact of her age when this was recorded. Fourteen. What’s more, she’s doing all her own piano accompaniment (every teenage artist in every genre ought to be required to listen to this recording every day for a month before ever setting foot on a stage). Anyway, near the middle of the recording she covers “Never Grow Old.” The critic Tony Heilbut has called this her greatest single gospel recording ever, and I think I know what he means. It’s not that the song is flawlessly or even expertly sang. In fact, it’s a messy, gigantic enormous performance of proportions that would give pause to the most seasoned and daring adult. But the song absolutely pulsates with Franklin’s raw spiritual energy and naturally (at the time) unpolished talent. She does things in the song that only the “don’t-know-any-better” audacity of youth makes possible: elongating the first “old” of the chorus until the tension of that single straight tone becomes nearly overbearing in its unrelenting brightness. Or later, when she tags the chorus and returns to the same place (”old”), this time she lurches up at the note three times, each time successively higher until she lands on an unimaginably high, full-voice F (unimaginable beacuse she’s not a soprano). I want to cringe and shout, to smile and cry all at once, but then at the last moment she embellishes the phrase with such spontaneous ease and descends into a more earthly range, so that every time I listen to it I find myself wanting to clap and stomp and hoot and carry on like the live audience, which comes completely undone when she belts out that F. Like so many irresistible unlooked-for moments of spiritual force, this is not primarily pleasing, though I derive a great deal of pleasure from the slightly unpleasant tension Franklin’s audaciousness builds into the song. Rather, it’s main quality is unavoidability. Like Mavis Staples’ voice, Franklin’s here demands a response, an account from everyone within its range, draws a hard line and burns away all obstructions to spiritual insight for a few moments, and though what we discover in such moments is not always entirely pleasing, it’s impossible to deny the centrality of the experience. Not bad, for a fourteen-year-old.

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