Aretha Franklin now holds the Doctor of Humane Letters degree, honoris causa, from Case Western Reserve University. Have I had a prouder moment in the 13 years I’ve been at CWRU than when I saw her in her blue robe, onstage with the university delegation, beaming as she received the award? I don’t think so. A more exciting introduction than the one that involved shaking Aretha’s hand and paying my respects? Definitely not. In the 16-year life of the American Music Masters series, CWRU has partnered with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to honor some great artists, all of them influential beyond the realm of music; from Woody Guthrie to Sam Cooke to Janis Joplin, they made our world a better place and shaped our lives. But with Aretha – and I write this listening to my favorite record, I Never Loved A Man, even though I’ve been steeped in her music over the past months, because I can’t get enough – we had the great chance and good fortune to also recognize one of the amazing, transformative figures of our time with a CWRU degree. This was serious business: the university doesn’t give this honor lightly, and we almost never present the award outside our regular on-campus commencement ceremony. When it came to Aretha Franklin, though, all bets were off.
Here was the woman who emerged from the church at the age of 14, her voice already powerful, confident, original. The woman who at 18 forged a career at Columbia Records, who in 1966 signed with Atlantic and shook us to the core, not only with her music, but also with her force of personality and deep soulfulness. The woman who for more than five decades has sung our lives and our dreams, our fears and disappointments, our frustrations and triumphs. And there she was, on the stage of the State Theatre, surrounded by her family, accepting our degree. As she walked to the wings, where I was standing, I remembered that the honorary degree recognizes people “who have exemplified the highest standards and ideals.” Dr. Aretha Franklin has surely done that, in music and beyond, and I hope she’ll be doing it for a long time to come. In the meantime, I wonder whether I can convince her to come back for Alumni Weekend.
To view a photo gallery from the American Music Masters tribute concert, click here!
Dr. Mary Davis is the Professor and Chair, Department of Music at Case Western Reserve University.