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FUV Essentials: Corny O'Connell on Aretha Franklin

Corny O'Connell and his wife Amy (photo by Rich Shapiro) and Aretha Franklin (courtesy of the artist,

Corny O'Connell and his wife Amy (photo by Rich Shapiro) and Aretha Franklin (courtesy of the artist,


Aretha Franklin is my favorite singer. By the time I came to that realization, as a fully grown adult, I had gone through many, many phases of fandom for other artists and bands. Now I’m counting on her voice and her music to remain a constant in my life.

There were no Aretha Franklin records in my home growing up. I didn’t start paying attention to her music until I was about thirty years old. When I did, I rediscovered all the songs that had seeped into my consciousness through years of radio listening. I also delved into the lesser-known gems, especially the material she recorded for Atlantic Records.

Initially what prompted me to dig deeper was her place in the musical hierarchy. How could I call myself a music devotee without a deeper appreciation of the Queen of Soul? But, of course, it was Aretha’s voice that ultimately mattered. This is a voice that demands respect, if you’ll pardon the pun. More so, it’s a voice that you feel, whether downhearted, resolute or sassy. For me it’s the slower songs such as “Ain’t No Way,” “Soul Serenade,” Dr. Feelgoodand Do Right Woman, Do Right Man through which Aretha connects on a gut level.

There have been times in my life when Aretha Franklin’s music has been just what I needed. When I got married my wife, Amy, and I needed a song for our first dance. Amy suggested Aretha’s version of Sam Cooke’s You Send Me.” The lyrics are right on point: “I want you to marry me/Please take me home…” Aretha’s exuberant delivery makes it such a feel-good number. Plus, it’s easy to dance to and, mercifully, just about two minutes long.

I can’t claim that our moves did it justice, but it remains one of my fondest musical memories.

The other memory that sticks with me was from a WFUV member drive. Member drives can be angst-filled affairs for the station staff. This is how we raise a large portion of our operating budget. All we can do is ask and hope that listeners respond. Fortunately, listeners were heeding the call as we reached the last day of this particular drive.

This was a long time ago—before I hosted the morning shift, and before I hosted the evening shift, I had the afternoon shift. The station has gone through amazing changes since then. You would not have heard the Beatles or the Rolling Stones on WFUV back then. (What were we thinking?!) You certainly never heard Aretha Franklin.

But things were going so well with the member drive that afternoon that I needed something to reflect the good vibes we were getting from our generous supporters. So I busted out Rock Steadyand I became a preacherman with Aretha backing me up with her funky, soulful, holy ghost spirit! That’s as religious as I get — when I preach about music and WFUV.

Let me testify about one “religious experience” in particular. Check out the 1971 performance from the Fillmore West of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles together on “Spirit in the Dark.” That’ll give you something you can feel.