I was born in 1960 in Detroit, a city where the automobile industry first took shape under the guidance of Henry Ford and where young, gifted and Black singers and musicians found a home, a mentor and a recording company, Motown, allowing for the real possibility to see their dreams become reality.
For me, growing up in Detroit, being just a short car ride away from Ontario, Canada, living in a middle class, two-parent home and yes, being spoiled “rotten” as the only of three children born to my parents who survived the trauma of birth, was idyllic.
But the best part was the close proximity I had with so many entertainers — some of whom would go on to achieve superstar success. Through blood relations, extended family, complicated encounters or neighbors who all lived in the same westside communities, I would have firsthand experiences and varying relationships (as much as possible for a child) with some of Motown’s greatest sons and daughters: The Four Tops, Ronnie White in particular, Marvin Gaye, Barry Gordy, the Jackson Five, Kim Weston and Gladys Knight are those who I remember most. To me, they were just like my parents, aunts, uncles or cousins — really and truly.
I would play in their backyards, go to their concerts that were kid friendly, ride in their sleek Lincoln Continental and Silver Shadow Rolls Royce automobiles, be chastised when I wandered outside the lines then held firmly for children and I’d hear how they were managing their lives with advice which stemmed from surviving a world where being Black had not been so beautiful.
As the world mourns the death of Aretha Franklin and remembers her regal style, her passionate, gospel-influenced vocals and her commitment to the civil rights movement, the Black Church and to the African-American community, I cannot help but reflect on my first encounter with “The Queen of Soul.”
Unfortunately, I never met the Queen and never attended any of her concerts. And while I did worship on a few occasions in the church where her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, once served as pastor and where Aretha established her foundations as a musician and vocalist, Rev. Franklin had been long dead and Aretha had moved on to a much larger stage.
But I remember the house in which her father lived for many years in Detroit on West Grand Boulevard just one block away from the home in which my then future wife was born and raised. Aretha lived in the impressive, opulent westside “mansion” too — at least when she was not on the road.
When the Franklin family sold the house, it remained empty for a long time before a family friend who had the skills to renovate homes purchased it. By that time, the vultures had broken in and stolen every item that wasn’t bolted down — sometimes selling things outright — other times, holding onto light fixtures, copper railing, even light bulbs as souvenirs.
When my friend had his house warming, I stopped down and sat on the back, enclosed patio for lunch. He walked me through the home, showing me how he had, as much as was possible, returned the home to its former glory when Aretha and the rest were residents. As we walked and talked, I couldn’t help but hear the voices, the conversations of the ancestors, the sounds of a piano playing, trios or soloists lifting voices in praise. And I listened as the house “whispered” to me.
I never wanted to leave. It was a day I will cherish forever.
Farewell, Aretha. You will always have my R-E-S-P-E-C-T.