Various news reports viewed Aretha Franklin’s death as the end of an era. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Franklin’s musical legacy helped a generation of people who were in dire need of inspiration. Her reach crossed racial and gender boundaries in a way that no other artist could. Franklin not only changed the way we heard music, but added layers upon layers of depth to it. Hell, she even gave us a different approach to being a diva. When we call someone a “diva,” it tends to be in the pejorative sense. Aretha didn’t come off that way. She was real. Detroit real. We all feel like we knew her and through her music, she spoke to us. That’s what made her special. She was ours.
The Queen of Soul was much different than the other musical kings and queens. There were no drug-fueled impromptu visits to the White House, backyard amusement parks or pet chimps. Aretha was the preacher’s daughter who had a gift for taking any song and making it her own. Otis Redding’s “Respect” is a great example. She turned a plea to a lover into a forceful demand. At the Monterey Pop Festival, Redding introduced the song by saying, “This next song is a song that a girl took away from me. A good friend of mine, this girl, she just took the song, but I’m still going to do it anyway.”
Franklin’s version of “Respect” was not only an anthem for the civil rights movement, but also for the burgeoning women’s liberation movement. It was released the day after Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War. “Respect” defined this particular time in the sixties in a way that not many other songs could. She similarly transformed “I Say a Little Prayer,” but in a remarkable way that became the Queen of Soul’s signature move. Franklin and her backup singers were playing around with the song during rehearsals. Upon hearing them sing it, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler hastily gathered musicians together with Franklin and the Sweet Inspirations (her backup singers) to record the track. What is popularly known as the best version of “I Say a Little Prayer” was done in one take.
Franklin often did what was not expected of her. How many artists at the height of their popularity would record a gospel album? Amazing Grace (1972) is not only the greatest selling gospel record of all-time, it is Franklin’s biggest selling album in her catalog. Growing up, I remember my mom (not a Christian or a church goer) playing the 8-track to Amazing Grace as well as Aretha: Live at the Fillmore West (1971) constantly. Aretha was a staple in my household. She was the aunt whose singing would always make things right. Her voice could pull me out of any funk I was in and the song didn’t need to be uptempo. The “everything is gonna be alright” aura that surrounds her music is a gift no one can explain. She could sing anything from “Eleanor Rigby” to “Jumpin' Jack Flash” and make it hers.
One of my favorite Aretha moments was watching her fill-in at the last minute for Luciano Pavarotti, who was scheduled to sing “Nessun dorma” at the 1998 Grammys. Watching the Queen of Soul sing opera, with some Aretha magic added for flavor, was nothing short of spectacular. I sat there stunned and asking myself, “Did I just really hear and see that?”
Calling her otherwordly only cheapens her artistry. She is one of us. She’s our queen. She didn’t care what you thought of her fashion choices. She wore her furs, put on her big church hat with an even bigger bow, threw on a feather boa and it didn’t matter. I didn’t think any less of her. Even PETA lobbed their verbal assaults from a safe distance. You simply don’t mess with the queen.
Aretha Franklin meant a whole lot to a ton of people all over the world and we’re still reeling from her loss. I’ve been dealing with waves of sadness over the past few days. Aretha was a heavy musical presence throughout my entire life. I remember on the morning of my first day in 1st grade, her song “Don’t Play That Song” was playing on the radio. The logical action for me to take is to do what I’ve always done when I need some cheering up. I’m going to head over to my turntable and put on some Aretha. Rest in Peace, Queen.
EXPLORE Aretha Franklin’s discography here