I’m too lazy to go get the iPad, but I once read a book about Van Morrison that described the job of a singer as filling the space between the song and the singer. The best leave no distance between them, essentially becoming the words and melody. Perhaps the reason Aretha Franklin’s so widely considered the greatest singer ever in American pop music was how little room her voice left for anything else. It was there, so powerful and imposing, that it had to be right with the song. What isn’t right next to her voice when she sings?
Of all her songs, “Call Me” is my favorite. There were probably better ones (“Ain’t No Way” comes to mind immediately), but that left so much to think about (or, in my case, remember). It’s her and little else. Not much in the track to get in the way, nothing in the arrangement to clutter up anything. Just her, even though that’s the last thing she wants it to be. It’s the standard longing for distant love, hoping for just a phone call. And really, that’s all there was to say.
But there’s not that much fun talking about that. We all know Aretha could blow. What’s interesting, to me, is how she managed to do it. Can you name a great singer, especially in black music, with less sex appeal than Aretha? I mean, even if you got her out of those tacky clothes, what are we really talking about here?
Was there ever a time when she didn’t sound like somebody’s mama? Like, when she was young and the people listening to her were, too, did it sound to them like she was someone’s mother? ‘Cause she always manages to sound like someone’s mother to me.
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That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And, to be honest, it’s not even an absolute. But I’m 31, and Aretha has been a national treasure as long as I can remember. We revere Aretha as much as we listen to her. She’s the Queen of Soul — the “voice of God,” according to Marianne Faithful — and nobody’s better and that’s that.
But she sounds like somebody’s mama. She sounded as much like somebody’s mama on “Respect” as she did on “A Rose Is Still A Rose.” She sounded like somebody’s mama on her best work, and she sounded like somebody’s mama on those awful with-the-times cuts from the ‘80s.
But that sort of warm, enveloping love, the kind that’s got a plate waiting on you when you get home from work late? That affection that folds your clothes before you even realized the dryer had stopped? Got that on lock. Run through Lady Soul or I Never Loved A Man THe Way I Loved You one more time and tell me I’m lying. Chaka Khan, she was not.
Nobody was knocking a simple, asexual love song out of the park like Aretha. I could probably name a dozen of them, so why “Call Me?” Because it’s just her, just her pining, just that voice that could wrap you up like no one else’s.
But, generally speaking, that’s just not what I’m into. I like my love to be exciting, to possess a certain visceral. I mean, I love ice cream, but I won’t plan to sleep with it for the rest of my life. And I certainly am not interested in sleeping with someone’s mama. Not someone’s mother. Someone’s mama.
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But damned if you don’t hear “Call Me” and feel for her. She sure seems comfortable with the idea that people leave sometimes, and awfully optimistic about where things are going. But man, am I the only person not so sure that dude was ever gonna call Aretha when he got where he was going? I mean, it sounds like he’s gonna be away for quite a while. She can’t fold his clothes wherever he is. And if she can’t do the dishes, what are we really talking about here?
Hey, don’t get mad at me. You hear it just as clearly as I hear it. And yes, the story goes that she saw two young lovers say “I love you, call me” when parting…but that was a temporary separation. You don’t break out the strings on “Call Me” for temporary. Or, if you do, you’re really doing the most.
But not a heart-wrenching sort of most. You just kinda hope it works out for her…even though it won’t. Damn shame, I suppose.
And she damn sure sold it, powered by all the sincerity that marks her best work on Atlantic (the worst work, BTW…yeah, we won’t discuss that). And while she definitely was more “impressive” on other tracks, she never felt more inextricably linked from the song itself than this. There was no distance between her and what she was singing.
That’s what a singer does. That’s what Aretha did.