Aretha Franklin, who passed away on August 16th of pancreatic cancer at age 76, embodied her title of “Queen of Soul” in a wholly spectacular way but that name didn’t fully capture all that she was. Aretha wasn’t just a gifted singer, and she wasn’t just a master of soul singing. She sang every American musical genre–jazz, blues, gospel, rock, county, and soul. Once she interpreted a song through the lens of her incredible voice; the layers of American history; all the pain and glory and struggle poured through so that the song transcended category and became an extension of her unique spirit. Aretha was more than a musical genius; she was a musician who gave her soul to music, making every single note soulful. She is widely acknowledged as the greatest voice in the history of postwar pop music, but even that accolade misses the totality of her influence. Aretha Franklin was an icon who seamlessly represented Black power, feminist ideology and American innovation in one celebrated package.
Aretha Franklin grew up in a pivotal time and place for African American culture. She was the daughter of Rev. C.L Franklin, an influential minister and civil rights activist whose Detroit church, New Bethel Baptist, trained her in both performance and political awareness. As a young girl, Aretha witnessed the likes of Nat “King” Cole, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington visiting and performing at her house. Around the corner, Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson began singing for a fledgling label called Motown. By the time she was 12, Aretha was stunning her church with solos that wrenched them into a collective state of ecstasy. But the young musician was also absorbing the protests and teachings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who often stayed with her family when he visited Detroit. Her father – dubbed the “preacher with the golden voice,” recorded and broadcast his sermons that embraced Black liberation and empowerment. He sold thousands of albums nationwide, but his popularity was just a fraction of the fame that his prodigy daughter would achieve.
Aretha joined her father’s C.L Franklin Gospel Caravan and toured the country, singing and playing the piano. She had already mastered her majestic range, and now she perfected riffing and commanding the power of her voice by bending notes and sliding around a beat. These were skills that would propel her into a musician who could sing anything. She recorded several gospel songs, but after watching the example of Sam Cooke, she decided that she could keep her gospel roots and still sing for a secular audience. In 1960 at age 18 she signed with Columbia Records. The label tried to mold her into a jazz singer and although Aretha earned a few top 40 hits, including, notably, “Today I Sing The Blues,” it wasn’t until she moved to Atlantic Records, a label that revelled in the blues and gospel roots that she was born into, that her true musical power was unleashed.
It was at Atlantic that Aretha recorded the seminal hits that would establish her as the voice of a generation and beyond. “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You),” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Chain of Fools” and “Think” were the songs that showcased Aretha’s exceptional talent and passion. But it was her 1967 cover of the Otis Redding hit, “Respect,” that became her signature and an anthem for both the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements. Aretha blasted out the lyrics calling for “a little respect when I get home.” It was a perfect example of her interpretive and arranging skills. She took a tune written by a man demanding his “props” and turned it into a declaration for women’s independence, all the while changing the tone, rhythm, and feeling of the original. She conquered the song so completely that Otis Redding relinquished his claim, declaring it Aretha’s song. It wouldn’t be the last time that Aretha’s interpretive skills refashioned and wiped out any memory of the original. Aretha wasn’t just a talented singer; she was a musician, songwriter, and arranger with unearthly instincts.
The following year, Aretha sang at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. She sang the gospel classic “Take My Hand, My Precious Lord,” by Chicago gospel legend Rev. Thomas Dorsey. Aretha crushed the emotion of the lyrics, “take my hand/ precious lord/lead me home” between the wailing and soaring crescendos of her vocals. With one song, she traversed the rocky landscape of American inequity and cultural freedom. She served as a witness for African American pain and salvation as well as becoming a crossover success. That Thomas Dorsey started his musical career as Georgia Tom, a Chicago blues pianist and composer who wrote songs like “Tight Like That,” and “Levee Bound Blues” serves as a perfect symbol of the close ties between blues, gospel, pop music and American cultural representation.
Fittingly, Aretha was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; she earned 18 Grammy Awards and had more than 100 singles on the Billboard charts over her illustrious career. She sang at President Barack Obama’s inauguration and the pre-inauguration for Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Aretha’s voice and musicality have influenced generations and genres. There is no type of music, including opera, which has not benefited from her presence. She did not just sing; she transformed souls. Yes, she was the undisputed “Queen of Soul,” but she also was so much more.
– Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
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