Happy New Year!
In 1967, Aretha Franklin released “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)” on Atlantic Records. The song was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, with some help from Jerry Wexler, who also produced the single. The backing musicians included members of the legendary Swampers from Muscle Shoals — Spooner Oldham on keys, Tommy Cogbill on bass, guitarist Jimmy Johnson — along with King Curtis on sax, and backing vocals by the Sweet Inspirations and Aretha’s sisters Carolyn and Erma.
“Natural Woman” was a smash hit for Aretha, reaching #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and becoming a signature song for her. Carole King later recorded the song for her landmark Tapestry album, and there have been other covers by Laura Nyro and LaBelle, Peggy Lipton, and Bonnie Tyler. Mary J. Blige had a hit with it in 1995, and even the guys like Bobby Womack got into the act, changing the title to “Natural Man.” But no matter who else recorded it, even the song’s co-writer, it was always Aretha’s song.
Flash forward nearly 50 years later. Aretha is part of a tribute to Carole King, as part of the Kennedy Center Honors. She emerges from backstage wearing a full–length fur coat. It’s decidedly not politically correct, but the coat is soon forgotten. Aretha sits down at the piano, a rare occurrence in itself, as Aretha doesn’t generally play the piano in concert anymore. She begins to sing:
Looking out on the pouring rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord, it made me feel so tired
As you might imagine, the place exploded. The formally dressed crowd leapt to their feet. Carole King herself wore an expression that blended incredulity and gratitude all at once. The President of the United States was seen wiping a tear from his eye. It was one of the most magnificent performances ever seen on television, and certainly the musical highlight of 2015. By the next day, the video of the performance had gone viral. You couldn’t look at Facebook without seeing it.
Aretha Franklin is 73 years-old, and she has long since been declared a national treasure. But the truth is that a lot of people wrote her off years ago. She was great, yes, but done. She can’t possibly be unaware of this. For her Kennedy Center performance, it was if she had decided that she would prove everyone wrong, and do it on national television so that everyone could see her do it. It was risky. What if she couldn’t pull it off? But she didn’t think twice, she just went for it. The great ones do that.
I suppose there’s a lesson there about not underestimating people just because they’re a little older. That lesson should have been learned by now because some of the best popular music in recent years has come from artists in their 60s and 70s. But still, as people age they tend to become invisible to younger people. Believe me, I know.
Thank you Aretha. Thank you for a beautiful, majestic, breath-taking performance. Thanks for making it clear that you are still a force to be reckoned with, and thanks for reminding the world that age ain’t nothing but a number.
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind
But you’re the key to my peace of mind
‘Cause you make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel like a natural woman