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Wednesday
September 19, 2018

Life without soul

By Bradley R. Gitz
This article was published September 3, 2018 at 4:00 a.m.

The death of Aretha Franklin, the "queen of soul," didn't hit me as hard as the deaths of David Bowie, Lou Reed or Levon Helm did.

We tend to be most shocked when the pop stars we grew up listening to pass away, and I grew up in a working-class family in a working-class town outside Chicago at a time when white kids didn't really listen to "soul" music much.

My musical awareness began with the Beatles on "Ed Sullivan," and it was just about exclusively Beatles and Rolling Stones thereafter. As I got older I expanded to other British invaders like the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Bowie, and the usual American suspects (Dylan, CCR, the Doors, The Band, etc.), but I didn't know anyone my age who listened to Motown or R&B. If it didn't have a guitar solo in it somewhere, it generally got ignored.

Which means the huge album collection I carted off to college didn't include any Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, or Aretha. Not even Motown groups like the Supremes or the Temptations (although I do recall having a 45 of "Ball of Confusion"). Millions of people bought Stevie Wonder's "Talking Book" and "Innervisions," but I hadn't even been tempted.

It wasn't resistance to "black" music per se since we all had all (three) of Jimi Hendrix's albums and considered ourselves good young liberals immune to the kind of ingrained racism that seemed to infect so many of the grown-ups around us.

Rather, it was simply that Aretha and Motown were part of a different musical world, and in our ignorance of music history (and culture more broadly) we didn't understand that much of what the Beatles and Stones and Zeppelin were playing came from Chuck Berry, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.

Along those lines, we didn't even notice that many of the tracks on the Stones' first few albums weren't actually "Jagger-Richard" compositions but covers of American blues standards; that they were imitating a Chicago blues band and Mick trying his best to sound like a black blues singer.

My exposure to Aretha thus consisted largely of the scene in the diner in "Blues Brothers" where she sings "Think" while giving the boot to boyfriend Matt "Guitar" Murphy ("without your dry white toast, without your four fried chickens ... ").

Like many people, I eventually outgrew rock music -- sometime in my early 30s I realized that instead of paying $50 a ticket to sit in the upper rows of Soldier Field and hear bad music played with terrible acoustics by inferior musicians, I could pay a $5 cover charge and drink cheap pitchers of beer while listening to the real thing at blues clubs like Kingston Mines and the Checkerboard Lounge. Having Willie Dixon join me and my buddies for drinks at our table at Biddy Mulligan's between sets one night was a watershed moment.

Thus began about a decadelong obsession with the blues, to the point of embarking upon a two-week "blues tour" with a former college roommate who, when not pursuing a successful career in marketing, played bass in a blues band.

We were going to hit all the hot spots -- Beale Street, the Crossroads, New Orleans, Austin, and of course the Chicago clubs -- but got derailed when a death in the family occurred (he finished the rest of the tour by himself). These days it might be called "cultural appropriation;" at the time it was a form of reverence.

The thought also occurs that within a few years I had gone from listening to what were almost exclusively white British and American rock stars to listening to almost exclusively old black bluesmen from the Delta. About the only exception to that was the West Texas blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan (sadly, I had tickets to his last concert, at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin, but couldn't go, only to hear the next day that his helicopter had crashed after the show).

The shift from blues infatuation to jazz infatuation followed thereafter somewhat naturally, although even within the jazz community questions of race tended to occasionally crop up, as in the exquisitely stupid claim that jazz played by white people wasn't "authentic" jazz (as if Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and John Coltrane counted but Bix Beiderbecke, Dave Brubeck, and Stan Getz somehow didn't).

Eventually, a sort of dutiful musicology led me to re-explore some of the classic soul albums and artists that I had ignored in my misbegotten youth. And with what was now a perhaps more sophisticated musical ear, I realized what I had been missing.

I'll never be the Kevin Kline character in "The Big Chill" who kisses his Motown records before he puts them on the turntable, and they still don't resonate as much for me as "Let It Bleed" or "Abbey Road," but I probably now listen to Sam Cooke's "Live at the Harlem Square Club," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," and Otis Redding's sublime "Otis Blue" more than any of my old rock albums.

And so, too, to Aretha's "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" and "Lady Soul."

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 09/03/2018
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