A conversation came up a few days ago, one about old-school comedians and those who have truly stood the test of time. Now, that conversation may have simply faded into the background, never to be remarked upon nor even remembered, had the real world, and yet another death, not intruded.
Aretha Franklin was one of the all-time great talents. There is no limiting her to a specific genre or style, no limiting her to “great female performer” or “great black performer.” She was great. Period. Full stop. She was a performer whose impact and legacy will rightfully be felt long, long after her passing.
This post started solely as a tribute to Ms Franklin, and a recognition of her passing, but then the little wheels of my brain started turning. I started to think about the all-time greats, about those who will truly live on past their deaths, and about how far above the rest they truly stand.
Whether singer, painter, writer, or any other form of artist, the ultimate achievement to which we can aspire is to leave behind something that matters.* Aretha’s position in history is solid and secure because of her influence, and the works she has left behind, but how many others can honestly make that claim?
*As ever, there’s a song for that: Chuck Ragan’s “What We Leave Behind.”
How many singers today will have their music and talent live on for decades, if not centuries? How many writers, or actors, or — indeed — comedians, will influence those who follow anywhere near as much as Aretha Franklin?
Two decades ago, Jerry Seinfeld was praised as the greatest comedian of the age. Today, how many truly look to his show, or his performances, as one of the greats? How many would honestly rank that show with M*A*S*H? Or Seinfeld himself with someone like Bob Hope?
As I mentioned in the intro, Aretha’s death brought back to me that conversation I had about comedians — and about what, and who, we consider great. What sit-com or show today can stand against Monty Python’s Flying Circus? When I look back, there really are only a handful of shows on that short list: I love Lucy, The Carol Burnett Show, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Cheers…
Whether or not you were even alive when those were made, they stand the test of time. I know kids and young teens today who still crack-up at the Three Stooges, and who would rather watch them than anything on TV or NetFlix.
You can make that list for just about anything, by the way. You can make it for actors, or for writers, or directors or painters…or for singers.
I may have my current fixation and passion for bluegrass- and folk-influenced rock, yes, but not even my favorites can stand up against the true greats. Gaslight Anthem versus Aretha Franklin? Mumford & Sons versus Billie Holiday? Chuck Ragan versus Otis Redding? The Avett Brothers versus Robert Johnson? Those aren’t even contests.
In honor of Aretha Franklin, then, and the other titans we have lost, take some time over the next few days and weeks to return to the works of those you consider truly great. Listen to their albums, watch their movies, read their books…
If, as Chuck Ragan said in the song I linked, “all we are is what leave behind,” then those few are the best of us. Return to them, not just to learn but also to enjoy…and to acknowledge true greatness.
And, as a final thought: Rest In Peace, Aretha. All the respect in the world is yours…