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Bearing Witness. Aretha's vocal technique is simple enough: a direct, natural style of delivery that ranges over a full four octaves, and the breath control to spin out long phrases that curl sinuously around the beat and dangle tantalizingly from blue notes. But what really accounts for her impact goes beyond technique: it is her fierce, gritty conviction. She flexes her rich, cutting voice like a whip; she lashes her listeners —in her words—"to the bone, for deepness." "Aretha's music makes you sweaty, gives you a chill, makes you want to stomp your feet," says Bobby Taylor, leader of a soul group called Bobby and the Vancouvers. More simply, a 19-year-old Chicago fan named Lorraine Williams explains: "If Aretha says it, then it's important."
She does not seem to be performing so much as bearing witness to a reality so simple and compelling that she could not possibly fake it. In her selection of songs, whether written by others or by herself, she unfailingly opts for those that frame her own view of life. "If a song's about something I've experienced or that could've happened to me, it's good," she says. "But if it's alien to me, I couldn't lend anything to it. Because that's what soul is about—just living and having to get along."
For Aretha, as for soul singers generally, "just living and having to get along" mostly involves love—seeking it, celebrating its fulfillment, and especially bemoaning its loss. Aretha pleads in Since You've Been Gone:
I'm cryin'! Take me back, consider me please;
If you walk in that door 1 can get up off my knees.
And in the earthy candor of the soul sound, love is inescapably, bluntly physical. In Respect, she wails:
I'm out to give you all of my money,
And all I'm askin' in return, Honey,
Is to give me my propers when you get home . . .
Yeah, baby, whip it to me when you get home.*
"That's what most of the soul songs are all about," says Negro Comedian Godfrey Cambridge. "Take Aretha's Dr. Feelgood:
Don't send me no doctor fillin me up with all of those pills;
Got me a man named Dr. Feelgood and, oh yeah,
That man takes care of all of my pains and my ills.
A woman works all day cooking and cleaning a house for white folks, then comes home and has to cook and clean for her man. Sex is the only thing she's got to look forward to, to set her up to face the next day."
Rats in the Basement. No amount of empathy from outside can give a singer the realism and believability that constitute soul. He has to have "been down the line," as Negroes say, and "paid his dues" in life. Aretha, in spite of her youth, has paid heavily. "I might be just 26, but I'm an old woman in disguise—26 goin' on 65," she says only half jokingly. "Trying to grow up is hurting, you know. You make mistakes. You try to learn from them, and when you don't it hurts even more. And I've been hurt—hurt bad."