From Gospel, Through Jazz, Aretha Franklin Became America's Queen of Soul
Aretha Franklin, renowned worldwide as the Queen of Soul and the greatest vocalist in Amercan music, has died, leaving a legacy that spans the art form, from its deepest roots to its most stylish pop branches. WMOT grieves with the nation and the world over this profound loss. Here you may read NPR's obituary and an appreciation by our music journalist Craig Havighurst.
Back what seems like a lifetime ago in 2015, when the United States had a president who celebrated American music and the humanities, Aretha Franklin took the stage at the Kennedy Center Honors to recognize her friend, songwriter Carole King. Franklin's performance of “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman,” which is memorialized in a must-see YouTube clip, was profound and moving, regal and sublime. The great soul diva entered in her signature mink coat but surprised the hall by sitting at the piano and accompanying herself with church house chords. Franklin’s voice was perfect. Years fell away. Ms. King was beside herself with joy and nostalgia and visceral excitement. Barack Obama wiped away tears.
And so do we all today, upon learning of the death of Aretha Louise Franklin at age 76. Hers was the voice that’s moved and bewildered millions with its depth of texture and flawless gymnastic execution. Hers is the one voice with which every singer of popular song since the 1960s has had to reckon with as a benchmark and integrate as an influence.
And besides its technical perfection and yearning emotion, Franklin deployed that voice to animate material that celebrated our best graces and challenged our most pernicious social disorders. In “Think,” with its chanting refrain of “freedom,” she and her then husband/manager Ted White wrote lines that resonated as clearly with 1968 as with today: “People walking around everyday/Playing games, taking score/Trying to make other people lose their minds/Ah, be careful you don't lose yours.” And she literally spelled out the most basic demand of both the women’s movement and the civil rights movement when she embellished Otis Redding’s original lyrics with “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and took the song to the top of the charts.
Franklin was born in Memphis in 1942. Her family’s tiny house (today precariously protected from demolition by a chain link fence put up by a local arts philanthropist) stands just a few blocks from where Stax Records would set up shop a couple of decades later. But she’d make a circuitous journey back to that neighborhood and that game changing studio, because preachers tend to move a lot. And that’s what her father did. Rev. C.L. Franklin relocated his family to Buffalo, NY and then to Detroit, where Aretha grew up surrounded by gospel music. Mahalia Jackson was one of her early caretakers.
As a teenager, Franklin became enamored with singer Sam Cooke, whose enthralling voice and career trajectory encouraged her to ask her father to support her singing efforts outside the church in popular music. The reverend did so, a pivotal and no doubt controversial decision that helped consecrate the historic marriage between the passion of gospel and the down-to-earth concerns and grooves of rhythm & blues.
For fans accustomed to hearing her late 60s Atlantic Records hits endlessly cycled on oldies radio, Franklin’s early major label projects will sound surprisingly smooth. Columbia Records star talent scout John Hammond heard her first at New York’s Village Vanguard and signed her in the spirit of Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. She was, in short, a jazz singer. Her early 60s records (all stunning by the way) swing with strings and big band flourishes as she sings standards like “Skylark,” “You Made Me Love You” and “That Lucky Old Sun” over nine albums.
The contrast between Franklin’s final Columbia album and her first Atlantic project, both released in 1967, is shocking. I Never Loved A Man The Way That I Love You, produced by Jerry Wexler and recorded at Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, starts with “Respect” and includes “Do Right Woman - Do Right Man” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” besides its famous title track. The album was her true commercial breakthrough, her first #1 R&B album. It would turbocharge the most consequential career by a woman in soul or rock and roll and end up in Rolling Stone’s Top 100 albums of all time.
In keeping with the spirit of her musical age, Franklin interpreted songs from across the musical spectrum. The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was a hit for her. She cut “Eleanor Rigby,” “The Weight,” “Gentle On My Mind,” and a magnificent “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that earned one of her eight consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. And even as the peculiar, MTV-driven 1980s unfolded, Franklin hung in with the times, recording material that would prove influential to modern R&B and hip hop.
In recent decades, accolades and honors piled up as for no other woman in American music history. Aretha was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Her Lifetime Achievement Grammy came in 1994, the same year she was herself a Kennedy Center honoree. She was twice named as the greatest singer of all time on Rolling Stone lists.
But perhaps the apex of mutual respect and love between Aretha and the America she elevated and ennobled came at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama. She sang “My Country Tis Of Thee” from the steps of the Capitol to the largest crowd ever to witness an inaugural, period. She offered up the first and fourth verses, emphasizing the country’s heritage and faith. Yet she conjured, then as always, the spirit of the third verse, which includes the lines: “Let music swell the breeze/And ring from all the trees /Sweet freedom's song.”