Long Live the Queen: Saying Goodbye to Aretha Franklin
When Beyoncé and JAY-Z dedicated the Detroit stop on their On the Run II tour to Aretha Franklin, it was hardly surprising — and not just because Franklin saw the city as her spiritual home. Earlier that day (August 13), it was reported that Franklin was “gravely ill,” and the Carters, along with most of the music world, sought to pay their respects. And their dedication was the perfect nod to a legend: two of this era’s most revered artists paying tribute to the Queen of Soul, an artist who paved the way for not only Bey and JAY, but for decades of musicians.
Sadly, Aretha Franklin died on August 16, 2018 after years of failing health and a long battle with cancer. But her music will most certainly never lessen in its vitality — the music she started making as a child, the daughter of rock star Baptist preacher and social activist Clarence LaVaughn Franklin. The music that carried her through the Civil Rights movement of 1960s. The music that flowed through her in the ‘70s as disco supplanted not just rock & roll but soul and R&B, too — and as the rise of MTV in the ‘80s and ‘90s continued to test the limits of genre.
And it carried her, too, well into her later years, the years that rightly saw her elevated as the grande dame of soul music, complete with all its trappings: 18 Grammys and more than 70 million records sold, spots in the Rock and Roll and Gospel Halls of Fame, and a historic performance at the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States Barack Obama. (Her 2015 performance honoring Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, in front of the president and First Lady, Michelle Obama, still has music fans buzzing.)
Franklin leaves behind a truly peerless catalogue of music, a catalogue that encapsulates in so many ways a more honest and, in some ways, painful look at the American Experience — especially women and people of color. Fifty years of history put to song.
Franklin grew up in a house filled with music and luminaries. As a result of her father baptist minister C.L. Franklin’s celebrity status within the Civil Rights community, a constant stream of the pop, R&B and gospel stars of the era passed through her home. Still, she was a standout talent in the hustling, bustling music town that was Detroit in the late-Eisenhower era.
“She was a prodigy, no doubt about it,” Smokey Robinson, another Detroit-area artist, told me in 2014. “We were all poking around the piano, picking out notes, and there she was, maybe eight or nine years old, already playing chords and accompanying herself.”
After making a series of gospel records in the 1950s, Franklin signed to Columbia Records in the early ’60s. The decision was inspired, in part, by family friend Sam Cooke, who was by that time making pop records. Over the ensuing years, she worked hard banging her piano keys on the Chitlin’ Circuit, learning that, as a young black woman, it was paramount to get paid in cash up front, something she insisted on for many years.
She recorded a string of excellent and stylistically diverse albums for the label, including a famous Al Jolson song “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” that she loved. But the fame she craved for herself eluded her, and, at her father’s behest, she parted ways with Columbia by 1967. As it turns out, it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
Franklin was soon signed by Jerry Wexler, who, along with his partner Ahmet Ertegun, had turned their label Atlantic Records into an independent juggernaut. Unlike the producers at Columbia, who had stumbled around from project to project with Franklin, making some memorable records along the way, Wexler seemed to intuitively grasp where to point her talent. He took Franklin down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to FAME studios, where the mostly white house band, the Swampers, had already accumulated a remarkable string of soul and R&B hits.
Franklin was a demanding and exacting charge for the veteran studio musicians to work with. She would leave them waiting in the studio for hours on end — sometimes days — with the studio clock ticking, saying that the time wasn’t right to record. When she did finally show up, however, all agreed it was worth the wait. And soon, Franklin’s career was on a roll.
In short order, she had scored hits with her reworking of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” which made her a star and duly became her signature song, “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools” and “Spanish Harlem.” By the end of the decade, at just 28, she was an A-list star.
Over the next 50 years, she would chock up 17 Top 10 singles and countless entries on the pop and R&B charts. The late ’60s and early ’70s solidified her legendary status; she created records that became the templates for just about every soul album of the time, while ushering in an era of strong black female artists. Most notably, there was I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and Young, Gifted and Black. And then there was Amazing Grace, the title track of which Franklin sang at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968.
Franklin’s albums in the 1970s featured several R&B and dance hits, but after 1973’s Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), her first Atlantic album to miss the Top 25, she released a string of albums that seemed out of step with the times. Nevertheless, those records contain numerous gems.
“We were all chasing it at that point,” Robinson recalled of the period, when many of the first generation of A-list artists of the Golden Era of rock & roll were struggling with the changing times. “Disco was happening, and for many artists, it became about trying to create hits, rather than about simply making great music. But a great song is a great song, and that’s why some of those tracks still sound so good today. They may have been overlooked at the time, but today they sound timeless.”
In the mid ‘70s, Franklin split with Wexler and Atlantic Records, and in 1979, her father was shot during a botched robbery, lingering in a coma for months before dying. Still, in what would become a recurring theme in her life, Franklin powered through, giving a scene-stealing performance of “Think” in the now-classic film The Blues Brothers. Franklin also kept up a grueling performance schedule.
She soon saw a renewed interest in her music from her core audience, as well as from a crop of younger fans, with albums like Aretha Sings the Blues and Love All the Hurt Away. But it was 1982’s Jump to It and 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? that struck a chord with the MTV generation and returned her to the charts — thanks to hits like “Get it Right” and “Freeway of Love.” The commercial fervor culminated with the hit “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” with George Michael, which topped the charts in 1987.
By the time Franklin appeared at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 and stole the show at the 1998 Grammy Awards — stepping in at the last moment for the ailing tenor Luciano Pavarotti with an epic rendition of aria “Nessum dorma” — she was rightly hailed as an American treasure.
In 2008, her status as the Queen of Soul proved even more indelible when she performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration, delivering a stirring rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” She then wowed the crowd at the 38th Kennedy Center Honors seven years later, when she famously stunned Carole King with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
She was the first black woman to ever appear on the cover of Time magazine. She broke the mold of what a black female artist could be. She made bluesy soul her calling card. And now… she’s gone. But not really. Not truly. You can find bits of her in the countless artists she inspired — from Beyoncé to Mariah Carey and so many others. You can listen to “Respect” and remember that — before she hijacked the song from Otis Redding, making it not just her own, but an anthem for female empowerment — no one like Aretha Franklin had ever existed before she arrived, and that there will never be anyone quite like her again.
Jeff Slate is a New York City-based songwriter and journalist. His writing can be found in the Wall Street Journal, Esquire and Rolling Stone, among others. He tweets at @jeffslate.
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