Aretha Franklin [1942–2018]

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Aretha Franklin had been a part of our cultural landscape for so long that we might be forgiven for thinking she’d be with us forever. We were wrong to have taken her for granted, but not to have made her immortal.

Born on March 25, 1942, the Queen of Soul touched every style of music throughout her career, but always remained true to her gospel roots. A Memphis native, young Aretha and her family moved to Detroit, which would become the capital of soul music. Her father, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, was a renowned Baptist minister and part of the civil-rights movement. Clarence was also friends with Martin Luther King Jr., who would sometimes stay with him when in Motor City. Pastor Franklin’s reputation was sufficiently well-established that his sermons were available as records. He could list Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington as members of his circle. However, none of this made him a model spouse. Sick of her husband’s escapades, Aretha’s mother—gospel singer Barbara Sigger—left the family home when Aretha was only six years old. Barbara obviously visited her five children as often as possible, but she would pass away in 1952. Basically raised by her father, Aretha and younger sisters Carolyn and Erma sang at the pastor’s church and soon found themselves in a recording studio.

Discovered by Columbia Records’ John Hammond, Aretha—who was already the mother of two young sons—signed with the prestigious label that launched Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday, and made Miles Davis and Bob Dylan headlining acts. Sadly, no one at Columbia seemed to know what to do with this diamond in the rough who only managed a few minor hits by the end of her contract there. The issue was an attempt to make her a bluesy jazz singer in the vein of Billie Holiday or Dinah Washington.

After moving over to Atlantic in 1967, Aretha was finally able to reveal her full potential and break through with “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”, “Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools”, as well as her reimagining of “Respect”, which eclipsed the Otis Redding original. Instead of the song being about a man asking his woman for the respect he felt he deserved as a bread-winner, Aretha took on the role of a wife demanding the regard befitting the pillar holding together a couple and household. Through this reversal of the traditional trope, the song became an anthem not just of civil rights, but of the feminist movement as well.

This “natural woman” was a symbol of pride to the African-American community. Her status and reputation even earned her a surprise visit from Martin Luther King Jr. when she sang at Detroit’s Cobo Hall on February 16, 1968—a date the city’s mayor had designated “Aretha Franklin Day”. King’s presence there demonstrated the extent to which he viewed Franklin as a cornerstone of Black pride, both through her music and her activism. It would prove to be their last meeting, however, since two months later she would posthumously return the favour through her heartrending performance of “Precious Lord” during the fallen hero’s funeral.

In 1972, Aretha would demonstrate her loyalty to her roots by incorporating traditional gospel into Amazing Grace, which would go on to become one of the highest-selling gospel albums in history.

After semi-retiring in the ‘70s, Aretha would get back on stage in the ‘80s as a result of her move over to Arista Records and her noteworthy cameo as a sister unwilling to let herself get walked all over in cult film The Blues Brothers. She would start churning out the hits again with “Jump To It”, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who, “Freeway of Love”, and “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”, an ode to feminism performed as a duet with the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox. Simply stating that she had a three-octave voice does no justice in explaining the singing prodigy and veritable miracle that she was; power is nothing without sincerity and taste.

To quote the Reverend Jesse Jackson, “she used her voice to deliver music for social justice. She was a fighter who used her art as a platform.”

When Aretha Franklin passed away on August 16, 2018, our world lost part of its soul, but her timeless music and the memories she gave us ensure that she’ll live on forever.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Written By : Stanley Péan