An editor asked me about any local connections to Aretha Franklin, the inimitable R&B/pop/gospel singer who died Thursday and left generations with memories, or any Waco concerts she might have performed.
I don't remember any Waco performances during my time covering arts and entertainment here since the late ’80s — if there was one, please let me know — and most of the personal contacts I came across were somewhat peripheral, though memorable.
Well worth the read is the Christianity Today piece on her legacy by Waco gospel music scholar Bob Darden, who detailed some of Aretha's contributions to the civil rights movement in his book "People Get Ready."
CaCean Ballou, daughter to veteran Waco musician Classie Ballou, remembered seeing Aretha sing at a New Orleans Jazz Festival at which Classie Ballou and the Family Band performed. CaCean, no stranger to famous musicians, found the experience jaw-dropping. "It was awesome," she messaged me. "Mouth wide open."
One particular night came to mind to Dwayne Banks, whose years in Dallas and working in both over the air and Internet radio has left him with a deep knowledge of rhythm-and-blues, pop and soul. He and a friend wanted to catch an Ike and Tina Turner show at Dallas’ Central Forest Club and took the remaining open seats on a back table. They were told the seats were reserved, but could stay until the intended occupants arrived.
He had no idea who that was until Aretha showed up, perhaps a little surprised that someone was in her seat and her hope of not being recognized had gone. "She had a show that night in Fort Worth with the Drifters," Banks remembered. "And she just gave me that little look of hers." He gladly surrendered the seat.
Waco bassist Tony Calhoun, who also has met more than a few famous performers during his musical career, crossed her path in Columbus, Georgia, when he was playing with the band Hot Soul On Ice in the early ’70s."She had the saddest eyes," he remembered. "She sang with a passionate hurt in her voice (but) the saddest eyes I've ever seen."
A happier memory, however, was his mom’s: She had sung at a Baptist convention featuring Aretha's father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, and Aretha complimented her on her singing — tough to top that for a memorable moment.
It's telling that so many remembrances of Aretha had songs attached: "Respect," of course. "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman." "Chain Of Fools." "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man." "Freeway Of Love." "I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You."
For me, Aretha’s "Spanish Harlem" takes me back to ninth grade in Jackson, Mississippi, and the quiet amusement of my black classmates in choir that a white boy would like that song so much. (Bless my nerdish heart, I did.)
Aretha's memorable voice had a powerful undercurrent of emotion that would sweep you far and fast once you surrendered to its pull. That marriage of emotion and music brands our memories like few things can do.
The millions of memories stirred by news of her death show that she did just that — and did it well.