‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin Leaves Behind a Majestic Legacy
When a star passes, the world typically launches into collective grief-stricken reminiscence, rediscovering an artist’s forgotten contributions and mining them for their unrecognized value. In rare cases, the artist’s work is so powerful, so impactful, that it has already become so ingrained in our culture that no reminiscing is necessary. It was always too monumental to go unappreciated, and as such, the final moment is only an unanticipatedly passionate celebration of an ever-cherished treasure. “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin died Thursday morning, at age 76, of pancreatic cancer. Recent years saw the disease taking its toll, with Franklin often having to cancel concerts towards the end. Sad as Franklin’s loss may be, it’s far from folklore’s “day the music died,” as Franklin’s indisputable legacy has and will stand the test of the time.
A favorite quote of Steve Jobs’ was “Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” and few exemplify this, in the best way possible, more than Franklin. Many don’t even know that her era-defining “Respect” was originally an Otis Redding song because of how much her rendition outshined his. Whenever an occasion calls for an anthem of empowerment, Franklin’s version is one of the first tunes that comes to mind. Whenever someone simply wants to show off singing chops with some festive attitude, “Respect” is high on the list. Anyone who hasn’t been estranged on a remote island knows it, and they know it in Franklin’s voice. In 1967, an otherwise unexceptional lyric was transformed into a rallying cry, of sorts — a voicing of long-repressed concerns, seemingly having accrued momentum from the civil rights movement and found their way to final articulation. Decades later, Franklin would perform “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, bearing witness to a monumental step in the true realization of a sentiment expressed decades earlier.
In Obama’s own words, “Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade.” Indeed, you can feel our history in Franklin’s music because you can literally hear it. Franklin began as a gospel singer in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan, where her father, C.L. Franklin was a celebrated minister. A precocious talent, she recorded her first gospel number, the self-fulfillingly titled, “Never Grow Old” at the age of 14. From the onset, you could hear the impassioned, theatrical sensibilities of a preacher, and this character never left Franklin’s singing. In this sense, Franklin’s eventual transition into secular music parallels the trajectory of American music as a whole. Consider that all blues-derived strains of popular music are indebted to African American spiritual traditions. Since the jazz age, one of the most common criticisms leveled at pieces of music has been that they “lack soul.” In other words, they have ended up too far removed from their roots, and have lost all of the passion along the way. Franklin’s music never had this problem — her voice is widely recognized as coming straight from the heart, hence her well-deserved moniker, “Queen of Soul.”
When Franklin first ventured beyond the gospel world to try her hand at pop music, she drew considerable criticism from the church community. Never one to take orders or compromise artistically, she proceeded unhindered, and ultimately cemented her standing in gospel circles when she returned with 1972’s “Amazing Grace.” Along the way, she caused controversy, blurring the lines between the sacrosanct and the taboo, with numbers such 1967’s “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business,)” in which she consummately channeled sexual energy with the same zeal and vigor as loftier concerns. It was a coming-of-age moment when the “soul” aesthetic took on greater proportions, demonstrating its greater capacity, broader reach, and universal relatability. Today, such fitting of style to subject matter scarcely bats an eye largely because voices like Franklin’s made it work so well as to make it sound natural.
In Franklin’s voice, the words of “Respect” assumed the proportions of a feminist anthem and, like many of Franklin’s other hits, projected a woman’s voice in a way that was then largely unheard. The singer had a rather tumultuous history in her relationships with men, and as in all other matters, she sang what she lived, unabashedly. When she called out her husband at the time for his boorish behavior in “Think,” women across the world noded in rhythm. Yet, unlike many female artists who confine themselves to the niche of embittered socially targeted fare, Franklin tackled the whole spectrum of experience, taking on the pleasures of life with as much enthusiastic fervor as she did the struggles she encountered. Among the countless songs that she made her own is Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman,” a definitive performance to say the least. Her overall contribution to the development of a pronounced female perspective in popular music is undeniable, and it is no surprise that she became the first woman admitted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Franklin embodied not only the feminine struggle, and the African American one, but the American one at large; she was a self-taught musician and a self-made woman who rose to the top, playing by her own rules. Without knowing how to read music, she taught herself to play piano, and became a child prodigy. Fast forward to the 1998 Grammys, she filled in last-minute for Pavarotti, making musical snobs worldwide question their very reality. She famously demanded that she be paid for each gig in advance, in cash. She left Columbia Records in her early years, rejecting their attempts to shape her into a generic, polished popstar, in favor of more edge. In later years, she turned down labels altogether, and released music independently. She kept with the times while other artists faded into shadows of their former selves. Just a few years ago, she was covering Adele, with her finger on the pulse, tapping with all her usual swing. She ultimately came to boast 18 Grammys, 17 Hot 100 chart entries, and the designation, by Rolling Stone, as “Greatest Singer of All Time.” Of course, all these accolades pale in comparison to the indelible mark that she has made on music, and the place that she holds in so many hearts. Now, when it comes time to pay our “respects,” we know how to spell them as she taught us, and we will do so in our music for generations to come.
Aretha Franklin died on Aug. 16, 2018 in Riverfront Towers, Detroit.