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All That Is Fair: Queen of Soul

All That Is Fair: Queen of Soul

Driving through North Alabama, day dreams and storms were passing across the corn fields on both sides of the road. With a good amount of quiet contemplation behind me and a few dozen cups of coffee down, I pulled into Fame Recording Studios. I was there to help a friend document a recording session for the week. The place is like a time capsule. It’s a little run down compared to what it was in its heyday, but you still feel like you just stepped back into the 60’s… into smoke-filled, late night head sessions with the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Alexander, Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin… the list goes on and on. Unbelievable pictures of these iconic scenes line every wall. Otherwise the rooms look almost exactly like they did back then. And so many of the original analog gear and instruments are still there and in good working order.

I parked all my camera gear in the smaller room and headed into the big studio, the one where all the really great stuff went down. It’s just a big open box with everything you’d need to make a hit record. And that’s exactly what people did. They would sit in that room all night and hash out ideas, acting as midwives to the mothers of our cultural landscape. As a musician, to sit in that space, I felt overwhelming gratitude. I’m grateful places like Fame exist, places that have been incubators for brilliant ideas ... songs that may have otherwise not seen the light of day, or at least not been nearly as attuned to their particular zeitgeist. Giants were in this room. You could feel them!

Every day that I was working at Fame I would get there early, before the band, and set up gear and drink three to five cups of coffee. Usually I’d be by myself or with the producer. I’m not a keyboard player, but daily I was drawn to sit down and play this tattered old Wurlitzer 112 that was set up in the main room. It’s just like a big cigar box with wooden legs and a small keyboard sticking out one side. I’d turn it on and sit there and pound out the few songs I know. It just sounded incredible. Perfect intonation, warm tone, greasy and gritty when you bang on the keys… Every note I played seemed like it was worth 10! Each one carried more weight than if I’d played them on something else. One morning my friend walked in and said, “You know that’s the Wurly that was played on ‘I Never Loved a Man [The Way I Love You],’ right?” “WHAT??? You mean one of the biggest hits Aretha Franklin ever had?” “Yep” he said. “That’s the one.” It must have been a magic box.

When I heard that Aretha had passed, I listened to “I Never Loved a Man” over and over again and thought about sitting at that electric piano. There’s just something about her. Why was she so great? I think it was the same greatness I felt when I sat down at that Wurly. She was a perfect instrument. She could do anything she wanted. But she also sounded gritty and personal. You can hear the pain and loneliness of racism and systemic injustice, domestic violence, and addiction. But there’s also inexplicable joy. You can literally hear her smiling at the microphone sometimes. Her voice inculcates all of it. It’s larger than life, dramatic, and human. Not unlike the incarnation.

Artists are in this world for the same reason rivers and mountains and forests and blue skies and oceans exist. They are signs. They point in the direction of a thread that binds us all together and simultaneously opens our eyes to the grand tapestry of God, into which we are all being woven, one way or another. But artists are unique among creation. They have the opportunity to display something uniquely human and spectacularly beautiful. Embodying the juxtaposition of a life and a body that aren’t quite what they may have been meant to be with a soul that’s deeper than any ocean and higher than any mountain… A heart that can love more profoundly than the limits it beats within… Those moments of transcendence when we realize, “surely there is more to this life than what I see in front of me.” This is the role of an artist. Aretha did this. She was truly great and fair. She will be missed by the whole world.

I get the privilege of writing these articles about all the people and artifacts that have profoundly impacted me. And briefly, I try to examine exactly why this is the case. I love doing this because the reason never ends up being what I expect it to be. Aretha left behind something for us to follow. She didn’t leave a perfect life to emulate; that would be Jesus’ role. And she didn’t offer her life’s work as a meticulously articulated theological treatise. What she left behind for us was a time capsule of emotion. She pushed the edges of innovation and artistic expression. That alone is an extremely vulnerable place to be. But she also gave us an honest, beautiful, and broken life that has been preserved in recordings. We can learn from what she gave. We can draw from it the reassurance that we are not alone. We can emotionally resonate with the gorgeous greasy sounds that come from the Wurly 112 and Aretha’s vocal cords and her words. And we can give respect where it’s due. God made man. Man wasn’t just good. Man was very good. Even the brokenness of mankind has beauty in it. Aretha pointed us to this beauty, and for that, I can give her, and her Creator, RESPECT!!