A fitting tribute to the Queen Of Soul, by Stephen Deusner and other admirers: “She became greater than the greats…”
How the Queen Of Soul empowered America
Aretha FrankLin didn’t feel the cold on the morning of January 20, 2009. her breath was visible in the Washington, DC air, but she was wrapped in a luxurious woollen coat and hat topped with a gigantic bow studded with Swarovski crystals. Besides, she was from Detroit, chilly most of the year. She seemed removed from the masses yearning to be warm, apart from the nearly two million audience members stretching as far as the eye could see, beyond the Washington Monument. across the national Mall she appeared on screens the size of billboards, as she stepped up to the podium and delivered a scorching rendition of “My Country, ’tis Of thee”.
Aretha was singing for the newly elected 44th president, Barack Hussein Obama, the first African American to hold that office. Delivering his inauguration address moments later, he must have been thinking of her when he stated: “It has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labour – who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”
There was, of course, some irony in the Queen Of Soul singing for the president, an R&B matriarch honouring a democratic leader; but Aretha was no stranger to such events. She had shared stages with Martin Luther King Jr and sang the national anthem at the 1968 Democratic National Convention – one of the few times she was ever upstaged. The violence outside the International Amphiteathre in Chicago overshadowed anything happening within, even the nomination of Hubert H Humphrey as the party’s doomed presidential candidate. In 1977 she sang for her first inauguration, this time for Jimmy Carter.
But Obama was different. He was, of course, a longtime fan of her sophisticated blend of R&B songcraft and gospel performance. Just a few months earlier, during a campaign event in Detroit, he stopped his stump speech to greet her in the audience and sing a few bars of “Chain Of Fools”. He was, more crucially, a product of Aretha and her activism, her efforts to promote black pride, her understanding that popular music and politics could complement and reinforce each other. Without Aretha, perhaps that Hawaii-born, Chicagobred kid might not have thought to dream of being a senator, much less a president. Obama’s inauguration wasn’t her longest performance, nor her best. But it was as important as any she had delivered in her 60-year career, not only because it put her in front of so many hopeful people on that cold morning, but because it put her legacy in front of them. She was proof – living proof, wrapped up in an enormous bow – that the accomplishments of an artist could reverberate down through subsequent generations, that pop music can change the world.
WHeN Aretha died on August 16, she was considered American royalty: a sovereign of soul music whose funeral was treated as a national event. She was chauffeured to the Charles H Wright Museum for African American History in Detroit in a 1940 Cadillac LaSalle hearse, the same one that carried
Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks and Aretha’s father, the Rev CL Franklin. At the museum, Aretha lay in state for two days while fans from all over the world paid their respects. There were even wardrobe changes, as though this was just another performance.
Her funeral lasted more than five hours, with sermons and performances by Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson and many other artists representing nearly every generation of pop star. Stevie Wonder, her longtime friend and occasional collaborator, struck the most affecting tone, linking Aretha’s activism to current political movements. “What needs to happen today, not only in this nation but throughout the world, is that we need to make love great again. Because black lives do matter. Because all lives do matter… That is what Aretha said throughout her life. Through the pain, she gave us joy, and said, let’s make love great again.”
Few artists in any genre or in any medium were so tied to the conscience of their country as Aretha. She was revered in a way public servants are revered, praised as though she had benevolently held public office – which is perhaps not far from reality. “The secret of her greatness,” former president Bill Clinton said at her funeral, “is that she took this massive talent… and decided to be the composer of her own life’s song.” Said Obama, “Her work reflected the very best of the American story.”
Aretha Louise Franklin was a celebrity so prominent that she could go by her first name alone. Friends might have referred to her as Re or even Re Re, but everyone else knew her by that rhythmic honorific, Aretha. Born in Memphis but raised in Buffalo and Detroit, she was named after her father’s sisters. She knew tragedy early in life: her parents divorced when she was a child and her mother died unexpectedly, which left her in the care of her father.
CL Franklin was a prominent preacher at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, so popular in fact that he released his sermons through Chess Records and booked services in large arenas around the country. Race was a frequent subject of his preaching: how the black community might better itself, how they would be delivered from prejudice and violence by the Lord. He worked with Martin Luther King to organise marches in Detroit, and in 1968 he preached at the Poor People’s March in Washington, DC. He was a celebrity in his own right.
Many of the great gospel acts of the era performed at New Bethel; some Aretha idolised and some she even performed with. A commanding singer and skilled pianist even as a young teenager, she joined her father on tour, often singing before his sermons and almost always accompanying his preaching on piano. Already her playing was attuned to the patterns of speech, to the drama of spiritual oratory. She released her debut in 1956, The
Gospel Soul Of Aretha Franklin, significant for including her first recording of “Precious Lord” by the black gospel composer Thomas A Dorsey. It was, reportedly, a favourite of Dr King’s.
Inspired by the success of her friend Sam Cooke, who had established himself as a pop star after years on the gospel circuit, Aretha pursued a career in secular music with the blessing of her father. Motown, then a fledgling label, wooed her; the Franklins appreciated its hometown roots and black ownership, but they had their sights set on greater opportunities at the national, not local, level. In 1960, Aretha signed with Columbia Records and began working with John Hammond, who had signed Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan, among many others. She spent six years on the label, recording prodigiously but enjoying nothing resembling a hit. Columbia failed to break her as an adult entertainer or as a teenybopper star, but not for lack of trying. She toured constantly throughout the early ’60s, sharing stages with John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey. Later she would graduate to the R&B circuit with Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. Success might have been slow to come, but Aretha was absorbing all of these different styles and devising new ways to incorporate them into her own personal sound. Still, her professional stagnation took a toll on her, as did the death of her mother and the racism she had witnessed while touring the country. “Part of what made her great,” says Sam Moore, a lifelong friend and one half of the Stax R&B duo Sam & Dave, “was the struggle, the hurt, the pain she endured. She took it all up on the stage with her. Some of us in the industry, we would
“She said, ‘Let’s make love great again” STEViE WonDEr
turn to drugs or alcohol or maybe even suicide, but she took it all up on that stage and she became greater than the greats.”
WHeN Aretha signed with Atlantic Records in 1966, the label was already a haven for R&B music, having made stars of Ray Charles, LaVern Baker and Wilson Pickett. Jerry Wexler immediately sent her down south to Muscle Shoals to work with Rick Hall and the Swampers at FAMe Studios, where Wilson Pickett had cut some of his best-known hits.
When she arrived in Alabama, however, she was not yet the Queen Of Soul. Some of the FAMe musicians knew her, but others had never heard of Aretha. Says Spooner Oldham, keyboardist for the studio’s house band, “That day we did the rhythm track and vocal for ‘Never Loved A Man’. We worked on ‘Do Right Woman’, which was finished on the day of the session. Two verses were already written, and Jerry Wexler wanted Dan Penn and Chips Moman to come up with a bridge. They were finishing it up in a closet while Aretha was recording it. She didn’t even know that song before that day.”
That session is legendary for the music they made together as well as for the tensions that erupted so quickly. Reports vary, but something upset Aretha and her husband, Ted White, who left town the following day. Says Oldham, “I came back to FAMe the next morning, but nobody else showed up. I asked the clean-up man where everybody was, and he said the sessions had been cancelled.” Instead, the Muscle Shoals players were flown up to New York, where they finished the album at Atlantic Studios.
As fraught as they were, those sessions produced Aretha’s breakthrough hit, “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”, which topped the R&B charts and hit No 9 on the pop charts. The LP that eventually bore that same title made her the Aretha we know today, and it was only the first of many. Aretha didn’t court the love crowd as aggressively as Otis Redding did, but she recorded radically reimagined versions of songs by The Beatles (“Let It Be”, “eleanor Rigby”), Simon & Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and elton John (“Holy Moses”). She picked out and amplified the gospel elements white artists were incorporating into their music, to the extent that her covers sound like the most fully realised versions of those tunes. Rather than court a white audience, she focused on her black audience, pitching Redding’s “Respect” as an equal-rights anthem and adding those sock-it-to-me backing vocalists. Aretha sang the song from a woman’s point of view – a black woman’s point of view – laying out the demands not only of race but also of gender. “So many people identified with and related to ‘Respect,’” she writes in her 1999 memoir From These Roots. “It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher – everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the Civil Rights movement.” Perhaps inspired by her father’s sermons and by King’s marches, she embraced the swell of black pride sweeping the country and began wearing her hair in an Afro. She still sported incredibly elegant gowns at her performances, but they were complemented and contrasted by her African prints, most famously on the cover of her 1972 double live gospel record, Amazing Grace. Nikki Giovanni explained Aretha’s success in “Poem For Aretha”, from the poet’s 1971 album Truth Is On The Way: She “...pushed every/Black singer into his Blackness and negro entertainers/Into negroness you couldn’t jive/When she said, ‘You make me feel.’” No other artist, male or female, could make R&B mean as much as she did. As Giovanni put it, “Aretha was the riot was the leader.”
AmAzInG Grace marked the end of an era. Aretha devised the concept – a double live album of gospel tunes recorded at her father’s church, featuring some of her gospel heroes – and she even won a producing credit, her first despite more or less co-producing much of her previous material. While Amazing Grace has been overshadowed by her previous Atlantic releases, for most of the 1970s it was not only the best-selling gospel album of all time, but also of Aretha’s career. Having left the church for the pop world, she
“The woman could do anything!” SAM MOORE
had managed to merge the two in a way that made sense both creatively and commercially.
Her reputation as the Queen Of Soul had already been cemented during those first five years at Atlantic, but she would not match that success for a while. During the 1970s she worked with a series of popular producers – the kind of match-ups that would seem ideal on paper – but she struggled to send hits up the charts. Suddenly Aretha was following trends, not setting them.
Hey now Hey: The Other Side Of The Sky, produced by Quincy Jones, was her first flop for Atlantic, although it did include the modest hit “Angel” (written by her sister Carolyn Franklin). She tried to go disco on 1979’s La Diva, produced by Van McCoy, best known for the novelty hit “The Hustle”. Sweet Passion, from 1977, featured work with the strange pairing of Lamont Dozier and Marvin Hamlisch. Her best work from this period is the soundtrack to Sparkle, a forgettable post-blaxploitation flick directed by Sam O’Steen. The album, however, was produced by Curtis Mayfield, who gave Aretha one of his most durable hits, “Something He Can Feel”.
Who knew Aretha would not just survive the ’80s but thrive in that decade? Starting with 1982’s Jump To It, produced by Luther Vandross (they did not get along), she mounted a remarkable comeback with a string of albums that put her voice in a new context. Albums such as Jump To It and 1985’s Who’s zoomin’ Who? might not have packed the political punch of her late-’60s hits, but she played up her appeal as a nostalgia act, especially on her hit “Freeway Of Love”. It celebrated the Motor City and the muscle cars manufactured there, and even featured a black-and-white music video set inside a shiny chrome diner. Similarly, “Jimmy Lee”, from 1986’s Aretha (dig that Andy Warhol cover), updates old-school doo-wop for a song that uses familiar rhythms and melodies to speak about memory and longing.
None of these tunes sounds trapped in amber. Instead, they pulsate with the excitement of new technology, new listeners, new possibilities, thanks to the modern pop production of Narada Michael Walden. After cutting his teeth as a percussionist for the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jeff Beck, he turned to production in the ’80s, helming hits by teen singer Stacy Lattisaw before he was introduced to Aretha after she had taken a brief but necessary hiatus.
“When I got with her,” he recalls, “she was just coming off of a two-year break. Her father had died, after being in a coma for several years, and she didn’t really sing. The first album we made together, Who’s zoomin’ Who?, was her return to the studio. And what we created was a new sound at that time: something old, something new, something revolutionary.”
ONe of Aretha’s most popular performances – viral before that term had been coined – came about by sad happenstance. Luciano Pavarotti had been booked on the 1998 Grammy Awards show to perform “Nessum Dorma”, an aria from Puccini’s Turandot that had been his signature tune since the early 1970s. At the last minute he fell ill and was unable to perform. Aretha took his place with little notice and even less rehearsal, but to say she brought down the house would be an understatement. Her performance was disarming in its power and interpretation, as she dipped dramatically into her lower register, then hit and sustained those high notes. Sam Moore was in the audience that night and admits he got caught up in the action. “Aretha came on with this big band, and I was like, what? I didn’t know at the time that she had been studying opera. I just thought, ‘What is she doing?’ But then I completely embarrassed myself. When she started singing, I stood up and yelled, ‘Goddamn! Can this bitch sing!’ I hope she didn’t hear me, but that woman could do anything.” That was a banner year for Aretha. She also released what amounts to her last essential studio album, A Rose Is Still A Rose. As she did during the 1980s, Aretha reached out to a new generation of R&B musicians, including Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Jermaine Dupri and Daryl Simmons. The title track, written and produced by Lauryn Hill of the Fugees, remains one of the finest singles of this phase of Aretha’s career, with its sharp hip-hop beat and a melody perfectly calibrated to her vocal phrasing. “A Rose Is Still A Rose” was not a huge hit, at least not compared to her ’80s peak, but it briefly made Aretha sound relevant to a new generation at the end of the century. But Aretha was largely silent in the next decades, even during the soul revival of the 2000s. Reintroducing oldschool R&B into the pop mainstream, that movement made stars of Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones and introduced Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette to new listeners. Perhaps the stakes appeared too small, the kingdom too tiny for the Queen Of Soul. Instead, she focused on projects like Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics and A Brand new me, which set old songs to new orchestrations by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Recycling past glories, these releases sound noncommittal, as though she no longer felt a need to adapt to a changing pop landscape. Aretha toured well into the last years of her life, but we are left to imagine what kind of album she might have created with the Dap-Kings or any of the other R&B groups that were obviously influenced by her. even at 76, she still seemed capable of finding new ways to make her music relevant and resonant to new generations. On the other hand, she spent years battling an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer, so the fact that she managed to continue recording and performing seems superhuman in retrospect. Her legacy was never in question, and her old recordings still speak as loudly and with as much moral authority in 2018 as they did in 1968. Perhaps this is what Nikki Giovanni was writing about in “Poem For Aretha”, our vampiric attitude towards celebrities that leads us to believe that changing the world is never enough. “We eat up artists like there’s going to be a famine at the end of those three minutes,” Giovanni attested. “Let’s put some of the giants away for a while and deal with them like they have a life to lead.” Perhaps that’s a crucial aspect of Aretha’s legacy: for all the fame and the success and the talk about changing the world, the diva was, at the end of the day, nothing more and nothing less than a natural woman.
The soul of a nation: Aretha Franklin recording “The Weight” at Atlantic Studios, Janaury 1969
With producers Tom Dowd (left) and Jerry Wexler, Atlantic Studios, 1969
Singing for new president barack obama, January 2009
Her funeral at Greater Grace Temple, Detroit, August 31, 2018
(Top) at Atlantic Studios, 1969; (below left) with Harry Hairston (left) and Narada Michael Walden, 1992
On The Andy Williams Show, May 1969
Benefit for Elton John’s Aids charity, Nov ’17