In Memoriam: Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)
It is with the greatest sadness that we must report on the death of the “Queen of Soul” herself, the great Aretha Franklin. Franklin was part of small and elite cadre of musicians who had such importance, longevity and depth, that they completely transformed American popular music culture. Her appeal transcended age, class and cultural background. She was more than just an entertainer, she was a true soul goddess, providing musical manna from heaven to eager listeners throughout a career that spanned over 50 years.
Franklin‘s key tool, apart from her impeccable taste in material, was of course her voice, which remains one of the most distinctive and powerful in all of popular music. Franklin combined perfect pitch, wonderful vocal quality, purity of tone, impressive range and personality all in one package. It is no wonder that she became the gold standard by which all other soul singers came inevitably to be measured against. Less known is that Franklin was also a formidable piano player, frequently accompanying herself both in live settings and on her recordings. While not a prolific songwriter, she wrote a number of her own songs over the years as well, including the 1968 Top 40 Hit “Think”.
Despite her plethora of hits and her chart dominance, Aretha Franklin is probably most strongly associated with her 1967 version of Otis Redding‘s “Respect”, which also appeared on her LP, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.
Redding, while a close friend of Franklin, was initially not a fan of Franklin‘s version of the song because he realized that Franklin had made the song so completely her own that it was effectively lost to him. In her version, Aretha re-imagined the song in such a way that lent it an entirely new meaning. While still maintaining much of the original lyrics she made it her own by adding a few key lines. This climactic break near the end of the song contains new lyrics and new, soon-famous, hooks:
Find out what it means to me
Take care … TCB
Sock it to me, Sock it to me, Sock it to me, Sock it to me [etc]
Arriving in the tumultuous year of 1967, the song took on additional importance by doubling not just as a song about individual respect in romantic relationships, but about wider respect for black people societally. A perfect song for a perfect historical moment transformed the pop hit into an out-and-out civil rights anthem, delivered flawlessly by a strong and confidant black woman, whose gifts were absolutely undeniable. The song peaked at #1 in the charts, becoming more than just a hit, but a rallying cry for a generation. It proved to be a career defining moment in a career that reached almost Olympian heights.
And the hits were plentiful. “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, “Spanish Harlem”, “Do Right Man – Do Right Woman”, “Rock Steady” and “Don’t Play That Song” are just a handful that immediately spring to mind. In all, Franklin racked up a mind-boggling 112 charted singles on the Billboard charts including 17 top ten singles. Aretha Franklin though, was not always the hit machine that she would become in the late 1960’s. Prior to becoming a soul singer, her career began with her singing gospel and jazz while struggling to find an audience.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942, but growing up in Michigan, Aretha learnt to sing at an early age in the choir of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father, C.L. Franklin, was the minister. Aretha‘s parents had a troubled marriage and in 1948, the couple separated, with her mother relocating back to Buffalo. As such, while her mother would come to visit Aretha in Detroit periodically, she largely grew up with some distance between her mother and had to find inner strength throughout her early life. It also resulted in her having an extremely close relationship with her father, who advised her throughout her career until his death in 1984.
Even from an early age singing gospel, Aretha was a standout talent. She charted a number of spiritual numbers on gospel radio stations and began touring at an early age on a gospel circuit. This included tours with the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose 1968 funeral, Aretha Franklin would subsequently sing at). While her father wanted her to continue singing religious music, after turning 18 Aretha confided that, inspired by Sam Cooke, she wanted to sing secular music.
After some coercing, her father agreed, and serving as her manager, helped her prepare a demo for Columbia Records. She was subsequently signed, releasing a number of singles and albums for the label. While she achieved some early lower chart success with “Won’t Be Long” and “Today I Sing The Blues”, Columbia didn’t seem to have a clear idea of what to do with the precocious young talent they had. They tried Aretha as a blues singer, a jazz singer and a ballad singer, but her career eventually began to stall.
Following the expatriation of her initial 6-year contract with Columbia, Franklin opted not to renew and instead signed with Atlantic Records, which seemed to have a clearer idea of how to market her. Paired with a number of top Muscle Shoals session musicians, Frankin was reborn as an out and out soul singer. Her first single for Atlantic, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” exploded into the charts in 1967, reaching number 9, forcing the wider music world to starting taking notice.
Finding a formula that worked, Franklin moved from hit to hit, turning out top 10 singles and impressive albums such as Lady Soul, Aretha Now, Spirit In The Dark and the socially conscious Young, Gifted and Black at a breakneck pace between 1967 and 1979. In June of 1968, she appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. With her incredible crossover success, she also became the first R&B performer to headline the famous rock club, the Fillmore West, later releasing the live album Aretha Live at Fillmore West documenting the gig.
While Franklin‘s career slowed down in the ’80s as musical tastes and fashions began to change, she remained a popular touring act and institution. She even tried her hand at acting, appearing in a memorable turn as an aggrieved soul food diner owner and waitress in the 1980 Saturday Night Live skit turned John Belushi/ Dan Aykroyd musical comedy film, The Blues Brothers. Another late career highlight came when Franklin sang a stirring rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the 2009 inauguration ceremony of President Barrack Obama.
Aretha Franklin was such a fixture in American life it is hard to come to terms with the fact that she is gone. Her many, many wonderful recordings, however, will live on. They will continue to move, inspire and touch future generations. Aretha Franklin‘s appeal was absolutely timeless. She remains one of the absolute greats of music and she will be keenly missed. She was a trailblazer and incredible talent who always comported herself with the utmost dignity, class and, as the song goes, respect. Rest in Peace.