The Queen is dead. Aretha Louise Franklin, a preacher’s daughter from Memphis who was broadly acclaimed the greatest singer of the last half-century — indeed, one of the greatest singers in the history of American song — died of pancreatic cancer Thursday at her home in Detroit, surrounded by family and friends. She was 76.
Singer Aretha Franklin dies at age 76
And if you are seeking to understand what makes her worthy of those accolades and superlatives, you’re going about it all wrong. Don’t just read this or any other appreciation. Don’t just sit and watch august personages pay homage on the cable news channel.
No, get out your music player and put on “Chain of Fools.” Put on “Freeway of Love” or “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.” Put on her version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And for goodness sake, put on “Respect.” Do that, and you will understand why she was called — with no hint of irony or crass showbiz hokum — the Queen of Soul.
Now the Queen is dead. Some radio stations have gone to a new format: all Aretha, all the time. Everyone from Taraji P. Henson to Paul McCartney to Steve Harvey to Al Gore to Rep. John Lewis is paying tribute online. Meantime, writers of newspaper appreciations and august personages find themselves struggling to distill in words something that bypasses language, something that taps into a primal force simultaneously human, hurting and, ultimately, hopeful, something they used to call soul.
Which isn’t to say that there are not metrics by which to gauge Franklin’s dominance.
Consider that when Natalie Cole won the Grammy Award for “Best R&B Performance, Female” for her hit, “This Will Be” in 1975, it was considered historic, though not because it was Cole’s first Grammy. Rather, it was historic because it was the first time in eight years the award had been won by someone other than Aretha Franklin.
So repeatedly did Franklin troop to the podium in the ’60s and ’70s to be honored for the best R&B performance by a woman that some music fans suggested, only half-jokingly, the trophy be renamed in her honor. She won 18 Grammys in all. Five of her recordings reside in the Grammy Hall of Fame. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
But if awards are one measure of her greatness, another is the unbridled esteem of her fans. One of them, Barack Obama, once put it like this: “American history wells up when Aretha sings.”
Ray Charles said, “I don’t know anybody that can sing a song like Aretha Franklin. Nobody. Period.”
And Rolling Stone observed: “You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.”
That was in a story listing the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” — not in terms of sales or cultural impact, but simply on the basis of pure vocal ability. It was a ranking that included the iconic likes of Etta James, Elton John, Elvis Presley, David Ruffin, Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Patsy Cline. But at the very top of the list sat Aretha.
She grew up a musical prodigy in a house filled with song. Her father was the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin, her mother the gospel singer Barbara Siggers. Two years after Aretha was born, the family moved to Buffalo, New York, where her father briefly pastored a church. Before long, the family moved again, this time to Detroit where he took over New Bethel Baptist Church.
In the Motor City, the couple and their four children took up residence in a six-bedroom parsonage in an upscale neighborhood of black doctors and teachers. Barbara abandoned the family when Aretha was six — she died four years later — but this did nothing to slow C.L. Franklin’s meteoric rise. He was soon the most famous African-American preacher in America, his sermons broadcast on radio and heard all over the country, and recordings of them selling by the hundreds of thousands. The Franklin family was living a dream of black upward mobility. All of which made their home a “must” stop for black entertainment royalty of that era.
Nat King Cole was a frequent visitor. So were Duke Ellington and Della Reese, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine. Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland were family friends. Clara Ward — or so the gossip went — was Rev. Franklin’s lover. The neighborhood kids included Smokey Robinson and Diane — not yet “Diana” — Ross.
And in the midst of it all, soaking up greatness like a sponge, was Aretha.
At first, she sang only in her father’s church. But as a teenager, Franklin embarked on the gospel circuit. She was out for weeks at a time, sharing stages with the likes of Ward and a handsome young gospel singer named Sam Cooke. A Detroit impresario named Berry Gordy got wind of the young chanteuse and tried to sign her to his fledgling record label, but Rev. Franklin refused.
She was 14 when she had her first child. She had her second the next year. Aretha was recording by then, gospel standards like “Never Grow Old.”
Even at that age, she was a singer of remarkable originality and power. Though still only a girl, she commanded with the authority of a seasoned veteran all the tools of the soul singer’s trade. She knew how and when to linger behind the beat or rush ahead of it, how and when to growl or swallow the lyric, how and when to bend the note toward heaven or stretch a word into gleaming, melismatic new shapes.
But most of all she had that voice, that sound of righteousness and home truth, brimming with what the prophet Jeremiah called “fire shut up in my bones.” Except that this fire would periodically release itself in shouts and shrieks of glory and grace, redeeming the pain of old women picking cotton and old men bent beneath the slaver’s whip once a long time ago. Heaven leaned closer when Aretha Franklin sang.
At 18 years of age, she tried to follow Sam Cooke’s example and cross from gospel into the mainstream. She wound up at Columbia Records, where she plugged gamely along for six years, enjoying moderate success as a would-be jazz singer, but no breakthrough.
That came in 1966 when Franklin left Columbia and signed with Atlantic Records. She would top the charts with her first single release, the bluesy title song from her first album, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” But it was her next release that would cement her place not simply in music, but in sociocultural history.
“Respect” was written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, the mighty soul man from Stax Records, as a standard-issue slab of Memphis soul. The horns traced curlicues behind Redding’s brawny vocals as he issued a traditionally masculine plea to be taken seriously in his own home. But Franklin subverted and exploded the song, first by simply daring, as a woman, to sing it, appropriating for herself and, by extension, women in general, the role of the aggrieved breadwinner seeking her propers. Except, she didn’t plead. She demanded.
Franklin’s arrangement sweetened the harder edges of Redding’s version, her fiery performance whipped along by a chorus of head-bobbing sass. “Just a little bit,” the background singers trilled, counterpointing her demands for “respect.” And then comes the dramatic break where the music falls away and against a stark silence, Franklin literally spells out what she wants, in case it is not by now abundantly clear: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” The backstory of Franklin’s life at that moment — for six years, she had been in a physically abusive marriage to her first husband Ted White; they would divorce in 1969 — only adds to the drama of the performance.
More than a song about a trifling lover, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” became an anthem for both the civil rights and women’s rights movements. People soon forgot that Otis Redding had ever sung it. Or as he groused good-naturedly, “Respect” was the song that “a girl took away from me.”
“Respect” would snare for Franklin her first two Grammy Awards and inaugurate a period of critical and commercial dominance. From “Chain of Fools” to “Think” to “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” to “I Say a Little Prayer” to “Spanish Harlem” to “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” to “Something He Can Feel,” Franklin simply could do no wrong. Her reimagining of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was a masterwork, turning the pop duo’s gossamer meditation into a full-on gospel testimony, complete with an almost two-minute, take-your-time intro of piano solo and background singers cooing, “Don’t trouble the waters.” During those years, she was also a prime financial benefactor of the civil rights movement, which was led by a family friend named Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1972, at the height of her powers, Franklin released “Amazing Grace,” a live gospel album that celebrated her church roots. It was yet another landmark performance.
By the late 1970s, as musical mores were changing and Franklin was beginning to seem more creatively exhausted, the hits became harder to come by. This was also a period of personal tragedy for her. In 1979, her father was shot by burglars. He lapsed into a coma and died in 1984. That same year, she and her second husband, actor Glynn Turman, divorced after six years together.
But the turn of the decade was also a period of professional reinvigoration. Franklin appeared with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in the 1980 comedy, “The Blues Brothers.” It was also in that year that she left Atlantic Records for a new home at Arista. A new series of hits would follow, including “Jump To It,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” “Freeway of Love” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).”
She left Arista after her 2003 album, “So Damn Happy.” In 2005, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2009, she sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration, though, in a rarity, she was almost upstaged that day. The culprit was her own hat, a gray felt creation with rhinestones and a giant bow that set tongues to wagging and the internet ablaze. In 2014, she released “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics,” which may stand as her last studio album, though there were reports last year of a new project uniting her with Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and Elton John.
In her latter years, Franklin was no longer the commercial powerhouse she once had been, and her voice did not always deliver the lustrous highs that had come so easily in her youth. But on any given night she was still capable of reminding anyone who might have forgotten just who she was and what she could do.
One such night was the 1998 Grammy Awards ceremony when the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who had been scheduled to accept a Living Legend award and perform his signature aria, “Nessun Dorma,” called in sick. On 20 minutes notice, Franklin — who is not, let the record show, an opera singer — performed this song from “Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini with such power and assurance that she brought an audience of music royalty to its feet for an extended ovation.
And then, there was the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors wherein Franklin performed “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” for Carole King, co-writer of the song and one of the night’s honorees. The performance Franklin gave that night was one for the ages, one she pulled from some deep place to which mere mortals have no access. She sang the tender lyrics of a woman’s awakening in a voice strong and true and freighted with awesome feeling. She sang it in the voice of a heart laid bare.
King clapped and jumped and seemed at times about to topple off the balcony. President Obama wiped away tears. And then Franklin, who had begun the song seated at her piano shrouded in a mink, stood up to finish the song and dropped the pricey fur to the floor in a gesture of pure, grand dame authority, and it was all over.
The New Yorker magazine asked Obama about Franklin’s performance that night. The president replied by email: “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
The memory of that beauty, vitality and hope — along with our ongoing access to a 60-year treasure trove of matchless performances — helps soften this present loss. Listen to “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do.” Listen to “Think.” Listen to “Amazing Grace.” And rejoice.
Yes, the Queen is dead.
But long live the Queen.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for
The Miami Herald