For Aretha Franklin, the Queen of… Everything

For Aretha Franklin, the Queen of… Everything

He meant well, but Pervis Spann did Aretha Franklin wrong.

Spann was a DJ and promoter in Chicago with a fast tongue and a gift for gimmicks. So when Aretha Franklin played Chicago’s Regal Theater in 1967 or 1968 — the date is in dispute — Spann surprised her by coming onstage and placing a crown on her head, certifying her as the Queen of Soul. In a photo taken that night, Franklin presses her palms against her ornamented dress, and her face reveals as much pride as her professionalism would permit.

As anyone from Pete Maravich to Snoop Dogg could tell you, the right nickname both describes and creates you. Aretha Franklin was the queen of soul even before she was the Queen of Soul. By choosing a familiar symbol, the crown, Spann turned a belief into a fact.

But Queens often live circumscribed lives, and Franklin’s title implied that her domain was specific, not universal. Elvis Presley was The King. Frank Sinatra was The Voice. Bruce Springsteen is The Boss. White men get better, more expansive monikers.

A nickname, like any meme, also reduces something complex in order to summarize and promote it. By the time of Spann’s ceremony, Franklin had already been a queen of Detroit, of gospel, of the black church. She’d lived as fully as a Dickens character.

At 14, she was a featured performer in a gospel tour headed by her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, a famous Baptist preacher with a silver voice — and a fondness for luxury goods and women who weren’t his wife. Aretha had her first child when she was 12 — the same age she’s believed to have had an affair with singer Sam Cooke, who was 23 — and gave birth again two years later.

The first time John Hammond heard Franklin sing, “I screamed!” he later said. Hammond, a legendary record executive, was wary of her (“I hadn’t heard the greatest things about the old man, the Reverend C. L.”), but by 1960, he’d signed her to Columbia Records.

For decades, the records Franklin cut at Columbia were derided as lackluster or wrongheaded. It’s true that her singing was too coy, and the songs often miscast her as an ingénue. (Try not to laugh at “Love Is The Only Thing.”) Certainly no one needed more versions of “Over the Rainbow” or “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”

“It wasn’t really me,” Franklin later said, fostering the idea that Columbia misused her. But she recorded great songs there, too, mostly when the theme was more worldly: the shaken, accusatory “Sweet Bitter Love,” or “Nobody Like You,” a blues written by the Rev. James Cleveland, a gospel legend and family friend.

Her phrasing was already dead-certain in its irregularity. “Nights ARE so lonely,” she sings in “Nobody Like You,” rushing the meter and emphasizing the only word in the phrase that has no bearing on the song’s sentiment. She didn’t italicize verbs or adjectives, like other singers — she italicized the feeling, and the unexpected jolt in ARE holds a loneliness she can’t control.

She does a similar thing, more severely, in “Rough Lover,” using percussive emphases (“Don’t want a MEAN daddy/I want a BOSS/I want a MEAN, sweet daddy”) that feel abrupt and untrammeled. The difference between her music at Columbia and her music at Atlantic Records — where she debuted in 1967 — isn’t a sudden change, it’s an intensification.

When I was a kid, my parents listened only to classical music, with one exception: a copy of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Franklin’s astounding first album for Atlantic. Fortunately, they played it over and over. I heard Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” before I heard his, and as a result, his phrasing sounded wrong. Franklin made it sensual rather than disputative — there are shades of “Rough Lover” in her syncopation — and Redding bowed to her: “The girl has taken that song from me,” he said. “From now on, it belongs to her.” For years, I assumed I Never Loved A Man was a greatest-hits album.

From 1967 to 1972, regularly making two albums a year, Franklin had a run few musicians have matched. Her confidence felt like certainty, and because she sang ahead or (more often) behind the beat, her elusiveness carried a lordly arrogance: wherever she sang, that’s where the pocket was. She held the rhythm section in opposition, cutting away and back into it, guided only by the spirit. Her golden era encompasses songs of nurture and betrayal, songs that demand and songs that offer, great songs she covered (“I Say a Little Prayer,” “Don’t Play That Song”) and great songs she wrote (“Think,” “Day Dreaming”), and lots of sex songs.

In 1999, Franklin published an autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots, and rarely have fans hated a memoir so much. They knew she’d had health problems, weight problems, addiction problems, man problems, yet her memoir skipped gaily through her life. Why was she pretending that the ache in her voice came from nowhere?

Franklin emerged from a different era of celebrity, and learned not to let anyone see behind the curtain. Jerry Wexler, the producer who made fourteen albums with her, called her “Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows.”

“The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness,” Ralph Ellison wrote in 1945. “As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” Franklin may have felt she’d already sung her autobiography. The paradox of “personal catastrophe expressed lyrically” describes her accomplishment. It’s glib to romanticize suffering — especially by women and African-Americans — as the source of artistic greatness. Franklin’s greatness came not from her suffering, but from her lyricism.

Some music fans prefer suprahuman singers, with uncommon, aspirational range, whether it’s Whitney Houston or George Jones, and others prefer next-door voices that feel grounded in the everyday. Aretha Franklin had a supernal voice that felt familiar, which is a rare trick. In popular music, the greatest singer is the one who connects most intensely with the largest number of people, and in a career that spanned R&B, disco, Top 40, gospel, blues, schlock, and, yes, soul music, that massive, encompassing crown belongs to Aretha.

Rob Tannenbaum has been a contributing editor at GQ, Rolling Stone, DETAILS, and Playboy, and has written for the New York Times, Vogue, Longreads, New York Magazine, and many other publications. 

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