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Aretha Franklin, 25 March 1942 – 16 August 2018

“Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade — our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance. Aretha may have passed on to a better place, but the gift of her music remains to inspire us all. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace.”

President Barack Obama, 16 August 2018 

Music makes us who we are, and there are scores of artists that helped shaped me… their songs marking many memorable stages of my life and those of many others all over the world. Earlier this year – March 8, 2018 to be precise – I penned Alive, She Cried! A two-part feature in celebration of International Women’s Day, listing my ten favourite female singers living in the world today. A little over a fortnight later, Aretha Franklin, indisputably the most formidable vocalist on the list, would celebrate her 76th birthday. It would prove to be her last.

Arguably the greatest singer of the post-Sinatra pop era, Aretha was an undisputed titan of American music. She had an uncanny ability to inspire through song, and influenced and captivated a generation through singing soul —and singing from her soul—stemming from a fabulously feisty but largely melancholic attitude, and an incredible talent that cast an inescapable spell over almost every female pop star across five decades.

From child prodigy status releasing gospel recordings at the tender age of 14, through to winning a record 18 Grammys, Aretha Franklin remained possibly the most authentic, the most heartfelt of all singing superstars.

Born in Tennessee in the spring of 1942, just three months after the USA entered World War 2, Aretha Louise Franklin was the daughter of renowned baptist minister the jazz-loving Reverend C.L. Franklin, who moved the family from Memphis to Buffalo and finally Detroit before she was school age. Thanks to that church upbringing (“I think the church gives you a natural class. And principles, and values,” she said in 2014), Aretha could testify with all the liberating joy of her Southern gospel roots. She could ache with the sadness of a singer who truly felt the blues, and swing with a playfulness to match her jazz heroes.

After nearly a decade honing what would become her singular voice, Franklin joined the formidable Nina Simone in helping to bring a gutsy blast of black-and-proud empowerment to the music industry at the peak of the civil rights era, campaigning with Dr. Martin Luther King, a family friend, and on record, using the hard-driving grooves of Alabama studio-session kings the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to counter Tamla Motown’s slick chart-oriented crossover sound.

Despite being Detroit-based — she was “forever friends” with Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, and neighbours with Diana Ross from an early age — Aretha wasn’t interested in recording for Motown, though it didn’t stop her covering the odd Tamla tune when she felt like it, most notably an incendiary version of Wonder’s Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do), issued in 1973.

Following in the footsteps of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, Aretha helped bring spiritual passion into popular music. In 1961 she signed with Columbia, which tried to turn her into a Dinah Washington meets Ella Fitzgerald-style singer of jazzy pop and easy listening standards with mixed results. But Franklin was no female Nat ‘King’ Cole, she was the future Queen of Soul. She was young, gifted and black. She was a do-right woman. She demanded R-E-S-P-E-C-T. But it would take a change of company to help bring those talents to fruition.

In 1966 Aretha made the switch to Atlantic Records, finally delved into rootsy soul, and began to flourish. Like Dusty Springfield, her one-time label mate from across the pond, Franklin took a strong hand in creating her own sound, unlike many of their performing peers of the time. Her guiding principle with producers, she said, was “If you’re here to record me, then let’s record me — and not you.”

Performing I Say A Little Prayer on the BBC’s Top of the Pops, 1970

With that inimitable fusion of grace and grit, Aretha was the definition of soul music, earning her that soubriquet, the First Lady of Soul. In her prime, she had the power, range and technique allied with pitch perfect instincts, and was a sharp, rhythmically fierce pianist. It’s hardly a surprise the person honoured as the first female inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was her.

From the moment she laid out those emotional truths on her bold and brassy reimagining of Otis Redding’s Respect — now a famous call for recognition and appreciation — Franklin helped complete the task begun by Billie Holiday and others, converting American pop from a patriarchal monologue into a coed dialogue. Women were no longer just going to stand around and sing about broken hearts; they were going to demand respect, and even spell it out for you if there was some part of that word you didn’t understand.

Ripping it up like a trailblazing civil rights warrior, Aretha made Respect her calling card, and the song became something of a mantra and a groundbreaking anthem of female empowerment. She was feminism incarnate, the very personification of emancipation and equality. And as she declared on her elegiac version of the country-soul standard Do Right Woman, Do Right Man: ”A woman’s… not just a plaything/ She’s flesh and blood just like a man.” 

With more than her fair share of Atlantic soul classics — Think, Chain of Fools, Angel, the list is endless — this Detroit divinity epitomised soul at its most gospel-charged. Franklin’s version of Bacharach & David’s sublime I Say A Little Prayer was pure existential soul, capturing heartache juxtaposed with workaday life: brushing your teeth, drinking morning coffee, putting on a little make-up. By singing of such things, she exalted the mundane, giving a voice — a powerful one — to everyday folks and events. The single charged up the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968 — one of six Top 20 hits she scored in that year alone —and just nine months after Dionne Warwick had already taken the song to fourth position.

Aretha brought the single to the BBC‘s Cliff Richard Show (below) two years later, bobbing in time to the rhythm as she rocketed through the track’s ecstatic declarations of devotion. During this epochal period, the interplay between Franklin and her background singers was a key part of her performances, and the trio of auxiliary vocalists add frequent jolts of energy here, echoing Aretha or falling into chirping rounds of call and response. As the tooting horn section brings the song to a reverent close, the singer lets a little shimmy creep into her shoulders.

1967’s majestic (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman is many people’s Franklin favourite, and undoubtedly a killer signature song, written for her by the celebrated partnership of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and the first taster of what would become a landmark recording, the Jerry Wexler-produced album Lady Soul.

On a personal level, I’ve come to regard Natural Woman as one of the most perfect, most blissfully evocative recordings ever made. Except for one damn thing: the abrupt fade-out always seemed like a cop-out to me, which is often the case when no one can think of a good way to end a song. Fortunately the version on the 2017 long-player, A Brand New Me, corrects this, bringing the outro to a natural stately end.

The album follows the recent posthumous Elvis model—it’s a collection of archival vocal recordings that Franklin recorded for Atlantic, accompanied by new orchestral arrangements by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra—albeit this first set made it out in Aretha’s lifetime, just.

More will undoubtedly follow.

The zenith of her remarkable run of records at Atlantic, Lady Soul made Aretha the critical and commercial toast of America and won a set of remarkable statistical achievements that testify to how widely it cast its net. For example, the album peaked at numbers 1, 2 and 3 on Billboard’s Black Album, Pop Album and Jazz Album charts respectively.

Alhough she wrote a number of her other hits, including the sexually brazen Dr. Feelgood, as was the case with Respect she displayed brilliance in making other people’s compositions her own, such as Curtis Mayfield’s gorgeous Something He Can Feel.

Or listen to her devastating 1971 gospel-charged take on the Simon and Garfunkel classic Bridge over Troubled Water. That water’s a good deal more troubled when Franklin sings the song. Even the bridge seems sturdier.

Her take on Paul McCartney’s Let It Be, also originally from 1970, is another consummate example. I have a sentimental attachment to The Beatles’ version, which was shortly released after Franklin’s (she’d based hers on the demo) — it’s actually inspired by his death of Macca’s mother, the Mary of the song, rather than the Virgin Mary) — but what Aretha effortlessly injected into the lyrics was pure passion and soul. Literally taking it to church, her Southern gospel roots infuse the song with a spirit and serenity its author could only dream of, despite the cheesy sax solo.

Though rarely straying long from gospel in the decades that followed, Franklin evolved alongside soul itself, gliding from assertive funk jams (1982’s Luther Vandross-helmed Jump To It) to uptempo house grooves: her clubby cover of Clivilles & Cole‘s A Deeper Love (from Sister Act 2) topped the Billboard dance charts in 1994, and amazingly, in the UK gave Aretha her second highest charting solo single of her entire career; a sisterly No.5 to I Say A Little Prayer’s No.4.

She remains the female soloist with the most Hot 100 entries in US history. But if I think back to the other side of the pond in the 1980s, the vast majority of my generation had next to no idea who Aretha was before a) Scritti Politti’s sweetly affectionate tribute from 1984, Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin), a slice of pristine pop perfection helmed by Franklin’s former producer Arif Mardin and b) Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves, her masterful 1985 duet with Eurythmics and one of the great feminist anthems of our times. It put Franklin back in the UK Top 10 for the first time in 27 years.

Listening to it now, Sisters sounds like it might have leaped intact from Lady Soul, which is all the more disquieting when you remember Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart’s record label, RCA/BMG, tried to strong-arm the British duo into using the more commercially viable Tina Turner. In retrospect, perhaps only Aretha, the essence of sisterly community and assertive sexuality, could have transformed Lennox’s inadvertently kitschy lyrics about “the conscious liberation of the female state” into such an earthy ode to independence. Although Annie deserves credit for humanising her lyrics, it’s Aretha’s sly, sassy performance that really makes the song soar.

D’n’A recording Sisters with Aretha at Detroit’s United Sound Studio B, 1985. © Lynn Goldsmith

Amazingly, by 1985 Sisters was only Aretha’s third Top 10 hit in the UK. Two years later another duet, I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), this time with George Michael, would give the singer her only British chart-topper, though truth be told, it probably wouldn’t have happened at all if Eurythmics hadn’t rescued her from semi-seclusion.

George wrote about his experience in his 1991 book, Bare, saying that he and Franklin recorded the song together but did their ad-libs separately. Yog admitted to being nervous, but he knew full well there was no point in trying to copy Franklin’s style. “Nobody can emulate Aretha Franklin,” he said. “It’s stupid to try. I just tried to stay in character, keep it simple – it was very understated in comparison to what she did.” Case in point: witness that brilliant moment at 2:42 where Aretha employs her incredible range to such mesmerising effect, swooping so unbelievably low that most people assumed it was George singing it until they saw the video.

Sadly missing from the above clip (it followed after the George & Aretha video), John Peel, the Radio 1 DJ and occasional Top Of The Pops presenter infamous for his caustic remarks about the acts and songs, ended this particular episode with the immortal sardonic put-down:

“You know, Aretha Franklin can make any old rubbish sound good, and I think she just has.”

Nevertheless, both duets helped raise Aretha’s status tremendously, aiding sales of her finest post-Atlantic pop album, 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? A slow-burning synth-coated collection of dance floor fillers that included the fabulously funky title track, Who’s Zoomin’ Who? — a phrase she came up with herself – was an invigorating return to form.

Freeway of Love, WZW’s first single, was a propulsive sax-fuelled joyride in a pink Cadillac that is miles better than its No.51 pedal-drop in Britain would suggest. Alas, it was much more successful in the US, eventually reaching No.3, winning a Grammy and became one of the most famous driving songs of all time. The delicious irony of that situation being that Aretha Franklin didn’t actually drive.

As fierce as she was fearsome, being “Aretha” didn’t keep her from checking out the competition, and being fiercely protective of her exalted status. Billing herself on social media as The Undisputed Queen of Soul, in 2008 her ego appeared bruised and bothered, while the rest of us were bewildered when she lashed out at Beyoncé for merely referring to Tina Turner, ambiguously, as “The Queen” during a Grammy Awards performance. Franklin later released a statement saying Bey’s proclamation had been a “cheap shot for controversy,” signing off with “love to Beyoncé anyway.”

Aretha made no mention of fellow Tennessee native Turner by name, who, since her legendary comeback in the mid 1980s, had sold hundreds of millions more records and concert tickets than Franklin. The saucer of milk routine continued with sharp words for Mavis Staples and even Gladys Knight, among others. 

In 2017 she resurrected a decades-old feud with Dionne Warwick, threatening to sue Warwick for libel for referring, colloquially, to Aretha as Whitney Houston’s godmother (she wasn’t but Whitney would refer to Aretha, as a friend of her mother Cissy, as “Auntie”). Dionne, who was actually Cissy’s niece and therefore Whitney’s cousin, maintained a dignified silence, as had Tina. With much bitterness and a fair dollop of jealousy, The Queen of Shade took the feuds to her grave.

The First Lady had been in poor health for most of the last decade, though she still managed the odd public performance, and in 2014 released Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics: ten songs made famous by female recording artists and the last studio album of entirely original recordings created prior to her death.

Nothing captured Franklin’s range like her trove of covers, which were often so deeply felt that she had all but reclaimed them as her own. Her volcanic interpretation of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep was another perfect example, and there were also well-received reinterpretations of tracks made famous by Barbra Streisand, Sinéad O’ Connor (a jazz take of the Prince-penned Nothing Compares 2 U), and Detroit compatriots Diana Ross & The Supremes with a rendition of You Keep Me Hangin’ On, though to be honest, it paled in comparison with an earlier outtake recording that Aretha had laid down in 1969, and which was finally made public in 2007.

And it’s way more wild than Kim Wilde

In July of 2014 I found myself staying as the houseguest of my sister Stella and her wife Sandra in the beautiful Cabbagetown district of Toronto. I was en route from my newly adopted homeland Australia, heading back to Blightly to attend the opening night of Kate Bush’s Before The Dawn residency in London.

I was a mere ten years old the last time KB staged any concerts, so you can imagine what a big deal this was for so many music lovers. Kate Bush was the only person on the planet who could drag me back to England just six months after emigrating. I couldn’t believe we’d waited so long for her to make her live comeback, and she goes and announces it just after I’ve left the UK.

I was literally moist with apprehension.

Not to be outdone, Stella just casually mentioned that she and her wife Sandra recently caught Aretha in concert in their new adopted Canadian hometown. I was more than a little limey green with envy. Since David Bowie had retired from public appearances I made it my duty to see as many of my other fave raves as I possibly could.

It occurred to me that Bush and Franklin really were the holy grail of live acts, both of them utterly unique and uncompromising in their artistry. Where they differed was that Kate was restricting herself to just one venue in West London — the legendary Hammersmith Odeon turned Apollo, scene of the infamous Ziggy Stardust retirement gig that Kate had attended, along with Neil Tennant, Boy George and the rest of the glam glitterati.

Franklin had formally stopped large-scale touring in 2003, but even a cancer prognosis in 2010 could not keep her down. Fearlessly, she rose to grand occasions when she had to, and it wasn’t difficult to find her gigging more than was good for her. Aretha continued to play sporadic dates in the decade-plus following, anywhere she could travel by bus from her home in Detroit, as long as an obliging promoter would pay her in cash before she’d set foot on stage. I vowed I’d see this legendary performer somehow, somewhere.

Aretha’s well-documented no-fly zone stemmed from a harrowing journey she endured departing Georgia’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport after a local gig in 1983. It traumatized her to the point that she never flew again, and encountering lightning and thunder during travel, even on the ground, would trigger tremendous fear: “I was leaving Atlanta in a very small plane,” she recalled. “A two-engine prop plane, I believe. And it was a very bad flight. I’m very much a ground person now.”

In June of 2015 I returned to Toronto for my birthday, and to march in the city’s Gay Pride parade with Stella, Sandra and assorted minions. This was the historic day that, 500 miles away on the other side of the North American border, Barack Obama announced a gay marriage was legal across the entire US, the timing of which deliberately coincided with the start of the Stonewall riots, which kicked off in New York on the day I was born. By chance, I read Aretha was on tour. Well, her version of a tour anyway.

The singer was putting in the odd appearance in a small handful of north and eastern states, including, in a week’s time, headlining a special 4th of July ‘Saturday In The Park’ free festival in Sioux City, the capital of the Native American Siouxland in the vast Great Plains of the midwest. Not only was it the chance to see one of America’s most legendary performers on Independence Day, but Iowa was the so-called Hawkeye state where I had indigenous ancestry myself, but had yet to visit. I was going. I didn’t even need to think about it.

In 1980, at the nadir of her musical career, Aretha made a rare foray into acting, employing some of her trademark sass in The Blues Brothers movie

Regional flights at that short notice were silly money, and it was out of the question to hire a car in Canada to return in the US (I was flying out of Los Angeles back to Australia ten days later, in the final week of my three-month visitor visa), so with no time to lose I hitched a lift to Windsor, Ontario, the borderline city with the States, then headed to Budget car rental on the other side of the Detroit River in the Motor City, the Motown hub where Aretha had lived since the age of four.

I hired a beautiful white Mustang convertible and sped — and I mean sped — the entire 12 hour road trip to get there, briefly stopping for the night in that toddling town, Chicago the windy city, and making the briefest of pit stops in the down-at-heel rusted steel town of Gary, Indiana to have a nosey at Michael Jackson’s birthplace.

Some 800 miles later I made the Grandview Park with just a few minutes to spare. Aided by someone’s right arm, Aretha shuffled on stage to the sound of Your Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher And Higher) and I had to pinch myself I was actually seeing and hearing that legendary voice in the flesh. Now 73, the famous pipes sounded a touch raspier than they once were, and the power came through her timing and easing into lines rather than belting. She displayed this assurance throughout the concert, such as how her fiery vibrato reshaped Sixties standards like I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).

Even if she no longer possessed the highest end of her incredible range, that night Aretha showed that her amazing artistry was always about more than the number of octaves. Aretha Franklin was such a defining feature of American culture, and here was I, with 25,000 natives on the most important day in the US calendar – the Independence Day of the United States, celebrating the moment the former ‘colonies’ declared themselves no longer connected to the British Crown. I don’t mind admitting I shed a bit of tear when she belted out Natural Woman.

© Steve Pafford 2014, 2018

Franklin was not simply the Queen of Soul; her contention to music across many genres was universal. She held royalty status in the fields of gospel, blues, jazz, dance, rock and pop as well. Utterly incomparable, I felt privileged and more than a little moved to be able to witness this voice of an angel live in concert. As with the Kate Bush concert, it was one of the greatest moments of my life. Her reign as The Queen of Soul will never end. The power of her voice would never diminish. The pure joy of her artistry would last forever. Thank you for everything Aretha.

An intensely private and rather shy person, Aretha Franklin died of pancreatic cancer at home in her beloved Detroit. It just happened to be the 60th birthday of another Michigan girl, Madonna, (who Aretha disliked intensely) who hails from Bay City about ninety minutes north of the Motor City, and whose middle name is also Louise. Franklin was born in Memphis, the Tennessee city forever associated with Elvis Presley, who, freakily, also died on 16 August some 41 years earlier. Aretha’s birthplace, a 1920s “clapboard cottage” at 406 Lucy Avenue, is a mere six miles from Graceland, The King’s resting place, and just two miles from where her friend Martin Luther King was assassinated. American icons and international fixtures in popular culture, the Kings and Queen are truly looking down on us now.

Steve Pafford

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