Respecting Aretha: how Detroit public radio paid homage to a soul legend

Despite the shapelessness of much of her career, and her own personal pain, Franklin made everybody else sound like shouters.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“Due to legal issues we had to turn off the stream today. We’re not allowed to play this much of one artist continuously, otherwise we get ourselves into a whole world of hurt,” Ann Delisi, long-time presenter on Detroit’s public radio station, was determined to keep playing the just-deceased Aretha Franklin on a loop (16 August), despite guidelines. In the end she urged listeners; “Turn on your actual radio. Go to your radio. Take your lunch to your car…”

Whenever she asked people to call in with their thoughts about that most famous of local girls, Delisi would then start helplessly on another monologue about the singer herself. She set a few things straight. Not least the “news outlets currently delivering obits outside of Hitsville” on West Grand Boulevard, oblivious that Franklin “never signed to Motown! That was a giant, beautiful, incredible machine. But it wasn’t for everybody.”

Delisi played a very early recording of Aretha singing, aged 14 in 1956, in New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was a preacher. “While the blood is running so warm in your veins/You had better get religion…” Clicking and scratching, it sounded like old vinyl the presenter had brought from home. You could tell from the opening seconds that nobody could touch this singer. The ease of the girl’s voice, the happiness and freedom. Despite the shapelessness of much of her career, and her own personal pain (she was a mother of two by 14) Aretha made everybody else sound like shouters. Listening to her it’s as though Ella Fitzgerald had been cooler and more of a natural genius, or Nina Simone hadn’t been so imprisoned in certain keys and doomed to dolorously sing 14-minute songs about all the troubles of the world. I love how Franklin gave that extra 10 per cent around two minutes into her songs; she always guaranteed a great outro.

“I’m gonna come over there and fix this issue,” murmured Delisi as the mixing disk faltered for the umpteenth time in the show (they seem to do everything themselves on the station) and you heard her pad committedly across the studio, weaving between piles of Aretha CDs, on an unstoppable, dogged-swooning Franklin roll.

CultureShift (WDET-FM)

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?