The Definition of Empathy: Aretha, The Queen of My Soul


'The moment I wake up,
Before I put on my makeup,
I say a little pray for you.
While combing my hair now,
And wondering what dress to wear now,
I say a little prayer for you.'

 Aretha Franklin, ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ (Burt Bacharach / Hal David)

Once when I was at school I read an interview in the NME with Kevin Rowland (of Dexy’s Midnight Runners) in which he declared that he couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without listening to Aretha Franklin singing ‘I Say a Little Prayer.’

I knew what he meant. The gently swaying piano intro, Aretha’s confident gospel tones, the tight backing vocals punctuating her thoughts, the mounting intensity at the chorus - and then that point of clarity:

'My darling, believe me.
For me there is no one but you.
Please love me too.'

Aretha seemed to reach out to me across an ocean, across a great divide of experience, ethnicity, gender and age. The soaring vocals, the spirituality cut right through me. Her voice demolished the distance between us. It was immediate, urgent, gentle and kind.

'Sometimes, what you’re looking for is already there.’

Aretha Franklin

Born in Memphis in 1942, raised in Detroit, the daughter of a famous preacher, Aretha learned to sing and play the piano in church. But her recording career was initially only moderately successful. Then she teamed up with producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, and in 1967 they went down to record at Muscle Shoals, Alabama. There followed a cascade of luminous soul classics: ‘I Never Loved a Man,’ ‘Respect’, ‘Natural Woman’, ‘Chain of Fools,’ ‘Think’ – variously expressing ardent affection, enduring love, self-righteous anger and bitter regret. She was hugely successful, universally acclaimed, justly lauded as ‘The Queen of Soul’.

Yet things were never easy for Aretha. She had a tough childhood and a challenging youth. She was unlucky in love and struggled with health issues. In her rare interviews she seemed shy, wary and a little awkward. She wasn’t a natural celebrity and, as she had a fear of flying, she seldom traveled abroad in later life.

Aretha’s warm mezzo-soprano articulated the breadth of these experiences, embracing all the joy, heartache and pain. She could be weak sometimes, and at other times compellingly strong. She always communicated an intense humanity.

'All I'm askin'
Is for a little respect when you come home (just a little bit).'

Aretha Franklin, ‘Respect’ (Otis Redding)

Of course, for the most part Aretha didn’t sing her own words. She was channelling the thoughts of the lyricist, inhabiting the character of the song. But she had a special talent for expressing real feeling, true emotion. When I listen to ‘Don’t Play That Song’, ’Aint No Way’,’ Until You Come Back To Me’, I feel what Aretha feels. I second that emotion.

We talk a good deal about empathy in business nowadays. We define it as the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. But what does this really mean?

Aretha teaches that empathy is not a rational condition. It’s not a cold calculation of other people’s circumstances. It is a profoundly emotional state. It’s the ability to identify shared human truths; to really feel for someone; to share their sentiments; to inhabit their triumphs, challenges and disappointments - despite differences of background and experience, regardless of race, colour or creed.

'Baby, will you call me the moment you get there?
Baby, will you do that, will you do that for me now?
Oh, call me, call me the hour, call me the minute, the second that you get there.
Oh, call me, call me, call me, call me, call me, call me, baby.'

Aretha Franklin, 'Call Me'

One of my favourite Aretha performances was on her own composition, ‘Call Me’. In the song she pleads with her departing partner to phone her the moment he arrives at his destination. (It was inspired by an overheard conversation on Park Avenue, New York.) She also seems to me to be expressing a lover’s patience: the willingness to wait until the object of her affection reaches the same level of understanding – until he finally gets there. I have always found this deeply moving.

I was never quite sure Aretha understood how much she meant to others - to people with very different personal narratives. If she were here now, I’d want to replay to her the words she sang so tenderly on ‘Call Me’:

'My dearest, my dearest of all darlings,
I know we've got to part.
It really doesn't hurt me that bad,
Because you are taking me with you,
And I'm keeping you right here in my arms.'

 Aretha Franklin, 'Call Me'

(Aretha Louise Franklin, 1942 - 2018, RIP)

No. 193