Learning From Aretha’s Master Interpretation Skills

No doubt if you’re reading some of the pieces out on Aretha since her passing, you’re going to encounter some discussion about her as a great interpreter. For the non-musically inclined, allow me to attempt to explain why this is such a big deal.

Imagine you’re in front of a group of kindergarteners and are going to read some Dr. Seuss.

Theoretically, a bunch of these kids already know these stories. Not because they’ve personally read them, but because someone else (a parent, a teacher, an older sibling) has read them.

Other kids have never heard the stories before.

Think about the never-exposed group – to those kids, your performance will be their first encounter with the work of the good Dr.

Dr. Seuss’ job was to write the story, but now your job as a reader of the story is to interpret it. Their experience will be shaped by your performance.

In music, there is often a similar separation between the writers and performers. While there are those who overlap between both roles, often times they do not.

When Aretha performed the music of others, as she so often did, she took varied source material, made it distinctly her own, and captivated the audience – whether live or via recording.

Her interpretations were iconic. From Otis’ “Respect,” which she repackaged the perspective on, to King’s “Natural Women,” Aretha made the writing feel as it if were custom-made for her to deliver. She brought more depth and nuance out than even some writers had imagined possible.

Now, go back to the classroom example. Imagine a person who’s reading of Dr. Seuss transports the class into another world – that’s the level Aretha was always operating on. So that even if they had a comparison or this was their first time, forever going forward they’d think of Dr. Seuss in terms of this impassioned delivery.

Few can do this for a song, let alone for hundreds of them over multiple decades.

Aretha was the real deal. The Queen of Soul feels like too small of a title.

We lost one of the great ones.

Two albums I’ve been playing which are personal favorites: 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, and 1972’s Amazing Grace. 

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