There are only a few great voices that have made an incredible difference on our lives and the country as a whole. Aretha Franklin has been one
On August 16, we lost this soulfully vocal stalwart. She was 76.
Aretha – the Queen of Soul – was active in the Civil Rights Movement alongside her father, the late C.L. Franklin (the man with the “Million Dollar Voice”), pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. As a native of Detroit, I had the pleasure of growing up in this thriving city with Black history on every corner, whether it was Vaughn’s Black Bookstore, the presence of Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press or Motown.
Growing up, we had Gospel, Jazz, Classics, R&B with The Motown Sound, Anita and Aretha. Her historical discography includes recordings under Stax, Atlantic, Columbia and Arista, but not Motown, as many have assumed due to her residency, as an early transplant from Memphis.
In our city of music, it rang out from speakers near and far. And Aretha Franklin’s voice and presence was woven into our sonic fabric. To listen to Aretha was not just emotional, but a spiritual and physical experience. When I play “Ain’t No Way,” I fall into the profound Gospel vortex, that sweeps me away while Cissy Houston hits the high note that soars through the background, and closes out the track.
This gift brilliantly connected Aretha’s church and Gospel background to all genres. While listening to “Chain of Fools” on one radio station, one could change the station and find Aretha bellowing out “Precious Lord.” Every youth choir, including mine, sang her soul-wrenching performance of “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.” Both songs are featured on her live double album Amazing Grace, recorded at the Watts’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. This Grammy-award-winning masterpiece was backed
by the Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.
There was no genre foreign to her – from Puccini to Pop – and “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” for the 2009 Obama Presidential Inauguration. If Aretha did it, it was bound to go viral. At the sight of the hat she wore in this performance, sales of the custom design skyrocketed.
It’s been wonderful watching her burgeoning career over the years with guest performances in “The Blues Brothers” movies and the must-have catalog piece – the soundtrack for the classic film “Sparkle,” written and produced by the brilliant Curtis Mayfield.
I had the great opportunity to briefly touch upon this legacy in my personal life, as I executive produced and digitally remastered her recordings from her teen
years on an album from the Peacock Gospel Classics series “Never Grow Old,” which closed with one of her father’s famous sermons, “Your Mother Loves Her Children.”
Rev. Franklin was shot during a robbery in his Detroit home and remained in a coma for five years until July 27, 1984. On that day, as a newspaper intern for The Detroit News, I wrote the cover piece on Rev. Franklin.
I always got excited watching Aretha move from center stage to the piano, when she would accompany her vocals. Having attended concerts in Detroit since my early childhood, I have had the wonderful pleasure of seeing Aretha countless times.
It never got old. The visual was so soulful and exuded her ability to control the direction of the song AND the band.
The first female inductee to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, award-recipient of 18 Grammys, having sold more than 75 million records, I’ve been a collector of Aretha’s music since childhood and wallowed in the rare and unreleased recordings as much as I did her performances with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
From the Carole King-penned “Natural Woman” to Otis Redding’s “Respect,” Aretha was a spiritual interpreter making the song her own. So often, after hearing her rendition, many often forgot an original recording by another artist existed. One of my favorite Aretha songs, “Til You Come Back To Me,” the masterpiece from Stevie Wonder, Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax always sounds fresh at any time. And when she performed her own masterful compositions like “Call Me,” a remake would be unthinkable in light of her brilliant vocals and piano accompaniment.
Aretha worked hard to remain current throughout the decades. With Marcus Miller’s thumping bass accompaniment, paired with Luther Vandross’ vocal arrangements, the co-composers laid down the foundation for her to scat through “Jump To It.” The songs are endless, whether it’s nostalgic greats like “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man” (Dan Penn/Chips Moman), “The House That Jack Built” (Bob Lance/Fran Robbins), her remake of “All I Need To Get By” (Ashford & Simpson), “Freeway Of Love” (Narada Michael Walden) or “A Rose Is Still A Rose” (Lauryn Hill), they all become new songs under Aretha’s special touch.
Full of as much odd humor and drama on stage as she was off stage, Aretha would randomly fire and rehire assistants and staff via red carpet mentions. One Los Angeles concert performance was flanked by her invitation to the owners of one of her favorite delicacies – Pink’s Hot Dogs in L.A. – to toss their foiled, signature franks from the stage into the audience.
She demanded that her regal title be protected as “the Queen.”
Never beyond throwing shade on fellow female recording artists, there are gifs displaying her avoidance of Patti, Gladys and Dionne. She constantly engaged in regular banter with fellow female recording artists, feuding over her claim to the Queen slot. The consummate music aficionado, she also was not short on her opinion about some current and young artists. All of these often resulted in social media quips and memes.
Aretha was quirky, never going far from “the purse,” her lifelong fear of heights resulting in potential loss of wages, due to her refusal to fly. There was the insistence upon venues not using air conditioning to protect her vocals, not an easy request to meet in the Summer.
The same could be said of her unique sense of fashion and style, particularly one MTV appearance with George Michael where she donned afro puffs, a Tutu skirt, bobby socks and platform Mary Jane shoes.
But in the end, she got a pass. Because after all, it was Aretha…the Queen of Soul. RIP – Rest in Soulful Peace, our Queen.