Let’s not speak of Aretha Franklin in the past tense. Let’s speak of her in eternals. The sun and the rain, the earth and the sky, love and faith, sorrow and perseverance. Aretha embodies all of those things and gives them voice, a rich, supple voice flowing with humanity. It’s among the two or three greatest voices popular music has ever known.
Aretha’s music is godly, lusty, turbulent, ecstatic, glistening. She spans musical styles and decades, while always remaining Aretha. She is the Queen of Soul, the reverend’s daughter, the woman who shows other women how to demand R-E-S-P-E-C-T, whose voice gave voice to torrential grief at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and soaring joy at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. She brought Obama to tears when she sang ‘A Natural Woman’ to its co-writer, Carole King, when the latter received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2015. Of that performance, Obama told The New Yorker, “American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears — the same way that Ray Charles’s version of ‘America the Beautiful’ will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed — because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.”
Aretha is the soul of black America, she is the soul of America, period. She is soul music, and the music of the soul. Aretha, simply, is. And will always be.
Aretha is …
“Respect”. From her 1967 album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, this is the song that changed everything. Aretha didn’t write it (Otis Redding did), but she wholly subverts it. A man reminding his lover, “I’m about to give you all my money … And all I’m asking, a little respect when I come home” is one thing. A woman singing the same lines, demanding “my propers” when she comes home from work, creates a thrilling new power shift. In the ‘60’s, Aretha’s “Respect” was adopted as an anthem of both the women’s rights and Civil Rights movements — intersectional feminism before the concept had a name. Aretha and her sisters Carolyn and Erma came up with the spelled-out repetition of the title and the “sock it to me” backing vocals. Listening to it now, more than fifty years later, it sounds more eruptive, uncompromising and triumphant than ever.
Amazing Grace. Aretha grew up a reverend’s daughter from Detroit (or “De-twah,” as she pronounced it, like the French), singing in her father’s church. She returned to her roots with this double gospel album recorded live at Los Angeles’s New Temple Baptist Missionary Church in 1972. Amazing Grace was the biggest-selling album of Aretha’s career. I wrote this about the album in 2012: “This is the greatest singing you will ever hear. Period. Aretha’s rich, glimmering melisma on “Precious Memories”, her spine-tingling screams of ecstasy on “Amazing Grace”, her roof-rattling testifying on “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” will take your breath away. Amazing Grace is the holiest record I own. And I say this as a secular Jew and an atheist. I don’t believe, but I am moved beyond words by the joy, the spiritual transcendence, of Sister Aretha’s voice lifted in praise. And that’s religion enough for me.”
“Nessun dorma”, Grammy Awards 1998. She stepped in for an ailing Pavarotti to sing the aria from Turandot with only minutes to prepare, singing it in the key that had been arranged for him. (This video keeps getting removed from You Tube, so act quickly.)
Young, Gifted and Black. Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a cohort of Dr. King; he also recorded a sermon entitled “The Meaning of Black Power.” And Aretha used her profile to further black pride and culture. A small report in a 1970 issue of Jet Magazine details how Aretha “stands ready” to pay Black Panther Angela Davis’s bond “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000.” The piece quotes Aretha as saying, “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit] and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. … I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.” (When the bond was set, Aretha was on an overseas tour and communications glitches prevented the transfer of the money.)
The chugging funk of “Rock Steady” and the misty, swirling R&B of “Day Dreaming” are two of my favorite Aretha-written songs. Both are from her Young, Gifted and Black album, released in 1972, the same period as Amazing Grace. Aretha in the early ’70s, with her natural hair and African dress, was a powerful contrast to the conservatively groomed young woman of her early career. The video below, a galloping performance of “Rock Steady,” comes from a 1971 episode of The Flip Wilson Show, and I’m including it because it validates a hazy memory from my youth. I remember watching Aretha on a variety show, maybe this one, with my mother, who offered a stony dismissal of Aretha’s “crazy” hair and African garb. Watching Aretha on TV with my parents during this period was like sitting in a sauna of heated disapproval. Fast forward to President Obama’s 2008 inauguration, for which Aretha donned the quintessential church hat, festooned with a magnificent, oversized bow, to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and instantly became the butt of white comedians’ jokes. Oh, and my mother couldn’t deal with that hat, at all.
The Interpreter. Aretha stands with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald as the greatest interpreters of pop songs of the 20th Century. With her unerring ear for arrangement and melody, her precise knowledge of when to caress a word, when to draw out a syllable, how long to hold a beat or a cry, and when to just let her emotions go, everything she sang became an Aretha Franklin Song. She conveys a deep connection to the lyrics of some of the most surprising choices. When Aretha sings it, the God-Is-Dead high-mindedness of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” becomes a gospel sermon about faith as the antidote to loneliness in disconnected times. Her ecstatic “I Say a Little Prayer” is the definitive version, all exuberant, full-hearted passion; Dionne Warwick’s (lovely) original of the Bacharach-David classic sounds muted and distant in comparison. Aretha pours blood and soul into Simon and Garfunkel’s tepidly angelic “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and connects to Elton John’s “Border Song” with every atom of her being.
Sisterhood. If you’re going to talk about the seam of female strength and solidarity that runs through Aretha’s greatest hits, you have to talk about her relationship to her backup singers on those records. This is what I wrote in a piece called “In Praise of Backup Singers”:
The backup singers on Aretha Franklin’s records aren’t musical accessories, they’re emotional necessities. When Aretha is sad, crying over the man that got away on “Ain’t No Way,” they’re crying with her (that’s Cissy Houston’s mournful soprano). When she’s giddy in love on “Chain of Fools,” they’re giddy too. When she’s giving that no-good man the business in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” they’re standing right behind her, hands on hips. Aretha’s backing vocalists are more than her harmonizers, they’re her girlfriends, confessors and sisters — on many of her recordings, they’re her actual sisters, Carolyn and Erma Franklin. “I got a call the other day,” begins Aretha’s spoken intro to “Angel.” “It was my sister Carolyn saying, ‘Aretha, come by when you can. I’ve got something that I want to say …’ ” “Angel” floats on Aretha’s soaring wails of loneliness, but it ends with a calming moment of sweet empathy from Carolyn and Erma: “He’ll be there, now don’t you worry/ Keep lookin’ and just keep cookin’,” and you can imagine them reaching across the kitchen table to take her hands and dry her tears. Aretha’s music is the sound of sisterhood, women supporting and comforting one another. One voice.
The Queen of Soul. The 2015 Kennedy Center Honors video encapsulates better than any of my words what a profound and immutable part of popular music, of America’s collective soul, Aretha Franklin will always remain. Amen.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2018