Aretha Franklin


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

aretha franklin

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

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