The Queen of Soul

“When God loves you, what can be better than that?” ~ Aretha Franklin

There is so much I could write about Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul but I decided to concentrate on the highlights of her music career and her “social and civic contributions”.

Aretha Louise Franklin was  born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee.  Her father, Clarence LaVaughn “C. L.” Franklin was a Baptist minister and a circuit preacher while her mother, Barbara was an accomplished piano player and vocalist.  Theirs was a troubled marriage because of her father’s philandering.  The couple separated in 1948.  Before her tenth birthday, Aretha’s mother died from a heart attack.  Several women, including her grandmother and Mahalia Jackson alternated helping the children at the Franklin home and it was during this time that Aretha learned to play the piano by ear.

Following her mother’s death, Aretha began singing solos at New Bethel, debuting with the hymn, “Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me.”  When she was twelve, her father became her manager, bringing her on the road with him during his “gospel caravan” tours for her to perform in various churches.

Her music career found Aretha signing on with big recording giants such as Columbia, Atlantic, Arista and RCA.  She belted out many hits such as You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman, I Say A Little Prayer, Hold On, I’m Comin’.  And she thrilled the younger generation with Who’s Zoomin’ Who and Freeway of Love.  Hearing Freeway of Love transported me back to the ’80s which were a great time for me when I was living in New York.  And who could forget I Knew You Were Waiting For Me, her number one duet with George Michael?

In 1980, she gave a command performance before the Queen at Prince Albert’s Hall, in 2009 she sang at the 2009 inauguration of President Barak Obama.  In the following year, she received an honorary degree from Yale University.  In 2014, she received honorary degrees from Harvard University and New York University as well as honorary doctorates in music from Princeton, Yale, Brown, Pennsylvania, Berkeley, New England Conservatory of Music and University of Michigan.  She was the recipient of other honors such as Doctor of Humane Letters and Doctor of Law degree.

Aretha was dubbed “one of the giants of soul music, and indeed of American pop as a whole.  More than any other performer, she epitomized soul at its most gospel-charged.”  Her voice was described as being a “powerful mezzo-soprano voice” and she was praised for her arrangements and interpretations of other artists’ hit songs.  At the age of 14 when she recorded her first album, Songs of Faith, Jerry Wexler declared that her voice “was not that of a child but rather of an ecstatic hierophant.”  A hierophant is a person who brings religious congregants into the presence of that which is deemed holy.  Aretha’s explanation for that would have likely been, “Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that.”

Singing and music weren’t her only passions.  Aretha was a civil rights activist.  Throughout her life, she was involved in the struggle for civil rights and women’s rights.  When Angela Davis was jailed in 1970, Aretha told Jet Magazine that, “Angela Davis must go free… Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people.”  Not surprisingly, her songs “Respect” and “Natural Woman” became anthems of these movements for social change.  She was also a staunch supporter of Native American rights, supporting their struggles worldwide and movements which fostered their cultural rights.

“We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It’s our basic human right” ~ Aretha Franklin

It was a sad day when it was announced that the great Aretha Franklin passed away after losing her battle with pancreatic cancer.  She leaves behind a world touched by her music, her incomparable voice and her effortless work in championing human, civil and women’s rights.  She was the first woman to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.  In 2013, she was again ranked first in Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Singers” list.

“American history wells up when Aretha sings.  Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope” – President Obama in response to her performance of “A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors.

Notes to Women salutes the woman with “the voice of the civil rights movement, the voice of black America” and a “symbol of black equality”  She was an inspiration not only for those in the music world but for all of us.  Although she is no longer with us, her music, her legacy will live on.

“It really is an honor if I can be inspirational to a younger singer or person. It means I’ve done my job” ~ Aretha Franklin

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Sources:  Wikipedia; Brainy Quote

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Three Legendary Ladies

At the 2015 The Kennedy Center Honors on Tuesday, December 29, 2015, three great ladies–Carol King, Cicely Tyson and Rita Moreno were among the five honorees.

Cicely Tyson, at 90 looks as elegant as ever.  She is best known for her role in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.  She was born in Harlem, New York City and raised by deeply religious, West Indian parents from Nevis, St. Kitts.  Her mother was a domestic and her father was a carpenter. Cicely was discovered by a fashion editor and she became a model.  She took the fashion industry by storm, quickly rising to the top.  She began acting in 1957 in off-Broadway productions before she was cast in feature films.  Her first major role was Portia in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in 1968.  She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her amazing performance in Sounder.  She has appeared in Roots, King and a Woman Called Moses.  Cicely is a seasoned and hugely talented actress who portrayed strong and positive black women.

I don’t condemn anyone for making their choices. If someone chooses those roles, fine. But not for me. When someone stops me and says, You’re the reason I became an actress, that lets me know I made the right decision – Cicely Tyson

We applaud Cicely for standing by her convictions.  Our choices can not only affect us but they can affect others.

Carol King wrote tons of songs such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles, “Run to Him” (#1 and #2 hits for Bobby Vee in 1961), “Crying in the Rain” (The Everly Brothers, #6 in 1962), “The Loco-Motion” (Little Eva, #1 in 1962), “Up on the Roof” (The Drifters, #5 in 1962), “Chains” (The Cookies, #17 in 1962, The Beatles in 1963), “One Fine Day” (The Chiffons, #5 in 1963), “Hey Girl” ( Freddy Scott, #10 in 1963, also Bobby Vee and The Righteous Brothers), “I’m Into Something Good” (Herman’s Hermits, #13 in 1964), “Just Once in My Life” (written with Phil Spector for The Righteous Brothers, #9 in 1965), and “Don’t Bring Me Down” (The Animals, #12 in 1966) and You Make Me Feel which has become the song most associated with Aretha Franklin.

The songs I identify most with Carol are “You’ve Got a Friend” which became a no.1 hit when it was recorded by lifelong friend, James Taylor and “It’s Too Late”.  Carol is the most renowned song-writer in pop music.   She has the distinction of having 400 of her compositions recorded by over 1,000 artists, resulting in 100 hit singles.  In 1987 she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and in 1990 she was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

At the age of 70 this remarkable songwriter, performer, author and environmentalist is still going strong. Beautiful–The Carole King Musical which tells the inspiring true story of King’s remarkable rise to stardom won two Tony Awards in 2014 and a Grammy in 2015 for Best Musical Theater Album.  Her music continues to thrill us.

It’s about connections. I want to connect with people; I want to make people think “Yeah, that’s how I feel”. And if I can do that, that’s an accomplishment – Carol King

We are grateful to Carol King for her music which still resonates with us.

Rita Moreno has starred in three great musicals–Singin’ In the RainThe King And I and West Side Story for which she earned an Academy Award.  She has the distinction of being one of the very few and the first performers to win an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy.  She was born Rosita Dolores Alverío in Humacao, Puerto Rico to seamstress Rosa María (Marcano) and farmer Francisco.  She and her mother moved to New York City where she began her career.

Unfortunately for Rita, she was typecast as a Hispanic pepper pot or another “exotic”.  In Father Knows Best, she was cast as an exchange student from India.  She considered the roles she was given degrading. It wasn’t until the ’70s that she was given better roles.  It was during that time that she won a Grammy Award for her contribution to “The Electric Company”‘s soundtrack album, a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for “The Ritz” and Emmy Awards for The Muppet Show and The Rockford Files.  In 2004, she received the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.  It is said that when her star was unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she fell on top of it, openly and uncontrollably weeping, later commenting, “I had been dreaming of this day since I was six!”.

We admire Rita who came from humble beginnings to where she is now.  She is a reminder that childhood dreams can come true.

Bigger than life is not difficult for me. I am bigger than life – Rita Moreno

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Notes to Women salute these amazing women for their well deserved honors and recognition for their work in music, film and stage.

Sources: IMDb; Brainy Quote; Carol King Website; Think Exist; IMDb;

Donna Summer

I was shocked and saddened when I learned that Donna Summer was dead at the age of 63.   When you think disco, you think of the queen of disco who belted out songs like “I Need Love”, “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls”.  Of course, when you ask men which song they like best by her, the contender is more often than not, “Love to Love You, Baby”.  They love the groans and moans.  Not everyone was receptive.  In fact, some American and European radio stations, including the BBC, refused to play it.   “Love to Love You Baby” found chart success in several European countries, and made the Top 5 in the United Kingdom despite the BBC ban.  Among her other disco hits was the song she did with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)”.  Donna was a five-time Grammy Award winner and the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach number one on the U.S.Billboard chart.  She also charted four number-one singles in the United States within a 13-month period.

She was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines  on December 31, 1948.  Donna Summer was her stage name.  She came from a Christian African American family.  She first became involved with singing through church choir groups before joining a number of bands influenced by the Motown Sound.  Donna was one of seven children.  Her father was a butcher and her mother a schoolteacher.  Mary Gaines later recalled that from the time she could talk, her daughter would often sing: “She literally loved to sing. She used to go through the house singing, singing. She sang for breakfast and for lunch and for supper.”

Donna made her singing debut in church at the age of ten when a vocalist failed to show up.  She recollects:   “I started crying, everybody else started crying. It was quite an amazing moment in my life and at some point after I heard my voice came out I felt like God was saying to me ‘Donna, you’re going to be very, very famous’ and I knew from that day on that I would be famous.”  

Later Donna auditioned for the role in the musical Hair but Melba Moore was cast instead.  Donna agreed to take the role in the Munich production and moved to Munich, Germany with her parents’ reluctant approval.  Donna became fluent in German, singing various songs in the language.  She lived there for several years before moving to Austria where she married Austrian actor Helmut Sommer, whose surname she adopted as her stage name.  They met on the set of Godspell.  The couple had a daughter, Mimi but the marriage ended as a result of her affair with German artist (and future live-in boyfriend) Peter Mühldorfer.  Donna kept Helmut’s surname but anglicized it to “Summer”.

Becoming known as the “Queen of Disco”, Donna Summer regularly appeared at the Studio 54 club in New York City.  Her music gained a particularly large following within the gay community, for whom she became a gay icon.  There was, however, some controversy surrounding comments she made which angered the gay community.  In the mid-1980s, she allegedly made anti-gay remarks regarding the then-relatively new disease, AIDS.  This had a significantly negative impact on her career and saw thousands of her records being returned to her record company by angered fans. At the time, Donna was a born-again Christian and was alleged to have said that AIDS was a punishment from God for the immoral lifestyles of homosexuals.  However, she denied that she had ever made any such comment and, in a letter to the AIDS campaign group ACT UP in 1989, she said that it was “a terrible misunderstanding. I was unknowingly protected by those around me from the bad press and hate letters… If I have caused you pain, forgive me.” She went on to apologize for the delay in refuting the rumours and closed her letter with Bible quotes (from Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians).

Also in 1989, she told The Advocate magazine that “A couple of the people I write with are gay, and they have been ever since I met them. What people want to do with their bodies is their personal preference.” A couple of years later she filed a lawsuit against New York magazine when it reprinted the rumours as fact just as she was about to release her album Mistaken Identity in 1991.

Donna remarried 1n 1980.  Her second husband Bruce Sudano.  The two met in 1978 while Donna was working on the hit track, “Heaven Knows” which featured Brooklyn Dreams member Joe “Bean” Esposito on vocals.  Bruce was a fellow member.  A year later, Summer gave birth to another daughter (her first child with Sudano),Brooklyn Sudano, named after Sudano’s group. (Brooklyn would grow up to star in the hit ABC production My Wife and Kids.) A year after that, Summer and Sudano had their second child, Amanda.  In 1994, Summer and her family moved from Los Angeles to Nashville, where she took time out from show business to focus on painting, a hobby she began in 1985. In 1995, Summer’s mother died.

Donna had a lot going for her in the 2000s.  She continued to score top ten hits on Billboard’s Dance Chart in the new millennium. In 2000, she also appeared on the third annual Divas special, dedicated to Diana Ross, though Summer sang mostly her own material for the show.  In 2004, Donna was inducted to the Dance Music Hall of Fame alongside the Bee Gees and Barry Gibb as an artist. Her classic song, “I Feel Love”, was also inducted that night.  On December 11, 2009, Summer performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway, in honor of United States President Barack Obama. She was backed by theNorwegian Radio Orchestra.

Before becoming a born again Christian, Donna struggled with drug drug addiction and depression.  Diagnosed with lung cancer, Summer died on the morning of May 17, 2012, at her home in Florida after a battle with the disease.  Singers and music industry professionals reacted to Donna Summer’s death   Gloria Gaynor, a famous Disco performer during the late 1970s,  said that she was “deeply saddened” and that Donna was “a fine lady and human being”.  Speaking on the CNN Headline News, Gaynor said she was devastated by the death of her longtime friend, and that she had not known about Summer’s cancer.  Harry Wayne Casey of KC and the Sunshine Band said he and Donna “ran in the same circles and are part of the same generation”.   Barbra Streisand wrote on Twitter: “I loved doing the duet with her. She had an amazing voice and was so talented. . . It’s so sad.”  Quincy Jones, on Twitter, wrote that Donna’s voice was “the heartbeat and soundtrack of a decade”. Aretha Franklin said, “It’s so shocking to hear about the passing of Donna Summer. In the 70s, she reigned over the disco era and kept the disco jumping. Who will forget ‘Last Dance.’ A fine performer and a very nice person.”  Chaka Khan said: “Donna and I had a friendship for over 30 years. She is one of the few black women I could speak German with and she is one of the few friends I had in this business.”

President Obama expressed his sadness at the passing of such a great talent and icon, “Michelle and I were saddened to hear about the passing of Donna Summer. A five-time Grammy Award winner, Donna truly was the ‘Queen of Disco.’ Her voice was unforgettable, and the music industry has lost a legend far too soon. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Donna’s family and her dedicated fans.”  Fans paid tribute to the singer by leaving flowers and memorabilia on her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Notes to Women salute this amazing and talented woman whose legacy will live on.  Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.

Because I’m just an ordinary person that did some extraordinary things.

But I like to know that someone is stronger than I am. I want to be able to know that if I get tired, somebody is there to hold up the fort. I like knowing that I can’t pick a refrigerator alone. God did not make me strong enough to do that.

God had to create disco music so I could be born and be successful.

I don’t care if I’m beautiful; I don’t care what I am on the outside. It isn’t about the outside.

I don’t really try to predict what can and will happen with things. Sometimes you think something’s gonna be a huge success, and it isn’t. And sometimes you pay no attention to something whatsoever, and God just makes it into everything.

I want a private life, I truly do. I’m not just pretending to want one like lots of celebrities.

Donna Summer

Source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donna_Summer