Crystal jukebox queen of hymn. . . she has no flaws in her trumpet -Bob Dylan
She was a singular presence in pop music, a symbol of strength, women’s liberation and the civil rights movement. Aretha Franklin, one of the greatest singers of all time, died Thursday of pancreatic cancer.
Very few artists are likely to equal her career. Consider the following, she landed over 100 singles in the Billboard charts, 17 Top 10 pop singles and 20 No. 1 R&B hits. Her music picked up 18 Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award in 1994. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She sang at the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, pre-inauguration concerts for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968. Clinton awarded Franklin the National Medal of Arts, while President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2005.
Born in 1942 in Memphis and raised in Detroit, she was ten when she took her first solo in her father’s church. She dropped out of school around the tenth grade and hit the road on the evangelistic circuit. Those shows staddled the religious and the secular and pointed to the path she would eventually take. The ex-gospel star was on her way to being the Queen Of Soul.
“You can call her a pop singer, or a gospel singer, or a rock and roll singer, or a show singer, but you’ve got to call her a whale of a singer — even a new star,” wrote the Washington Post in 1961.
And while she was headed towards the pop world, she never really left the church far behind. Aretha brought a righteous fire to her hits: “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man,” “Think,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools”, establishing a template that is still being followed today, a woman being strong and sexy. Anguished, but definitely not to be messed with.
“I just lost my song. That girl took it away from me.” — Otis Redding to producer Jerry Wexler after hearing her version of “Respect” in the studio for the first time, 1967
And he never got it back. Tom Dowd was the engineer for this session and Dowd worked with Redding on the original. In the documentary Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music, Dowd talked about working with Franklin on the song: “I walked out into the studio and said, ‘What’s the next song?’ Aretha starts singing it to me, I said, ‘I know that song, I made it with Otis Redding like three years ago.’ The first time I recorded ‘Respect,’ was on the Otis Blue album, and she picked up on it. She and Carolyn (Aretha’s sister) were the ones who conceived of it coming from the woman’s point of view instead of the man’s point of view.”
That’s the real Girl Power, baby. And almost overnight, “Sock It To Me”, became part of the American vernacular. Even Richard Nixon uttered it on prime time television during an episode of Laugh In. As Bob Lefsetz wrote, “Can you imagine Trump quoting Kendrick Lamar today?”
But there remains a bit a of mystery of her’s versus the original. There’s a break in the song where Aretha and her sisters sing R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Take care of TCP. Mmmm? A thought put forth by Rob Sheffield, “Well, when you take the T, C and P out of “Respect,” what you get is REE’S. A sly joke out of chanting her nickname “Ree, Ree, Ree, Ree” — as if to serve notice that Miss Ree has claimed the song, from no less than Otis Redding himself. Otis spent the rest of his life bragging about how Aretha stole his song. Who wouldn’t?”
“Respect” became her calling card. She took a song about looking for a little love when the workday was over and turned it into an anthem for equality and freedom, sung by a voice that would not be denied.
And that voice…strong, sly, sassy, and sublime. But it was that legendary wail that turned your head, raised your spirits, and made you wanna move.
And while she effortlessly moved from soul to pop, to rock and jazz for five decades, 1968’s Lady Soul, 1968’s Aretha Now, 1969’s Soul ’69, and 1971’s Young, Gifted and Black, remain essential to any collection.
In closing, Luther Vandross said it best, “This woman ain’t entertainment. She’s done opened the books to my life and told everybody. Like Roberta Flack used to say in ‘Killing Me Softly,’ ‘I thought he found my letters and read them all out loud.’ She was the spokesperson for a lot of people and how they feel.”