Aretha Franklin is without question the most accomplished vocalist in popular music – the undisputed Queen of Soul. And although there have been many pretenders to the throne, she still reigns supreme, regularly cited as the greatest female singer of modern times. A titan, with a voice that turned every room into a Cathedral. Her cultural impact is immeasurable.
A child prodigy who began singing in her father’s church aged 12 and made her first record at 14. Ms. Franklin was a deeply reserved artist who spoke little about her art and shied away from revealing too much about her personal life. She once described her music as "me, with my hand outstretched, hoping someone will take it". Hers was a a life of heroism, heartbreak and hope and she articulated adversities and injustices that still exist today.
A motherless child who grew up in extremely difficult circumstances fighting her way with attitude, pride and the unyielding will of a performer who became a symbol for the civil rights movement. She was also a champion of the women's rights movement giving them one of their early anthems with her rabble-rousing rendition of Otis Redding's ‘Respect’.
Her ability to stimulate emotion is a talent few artists have ever been able to emulate. And her piano-playing prowess was unparalleled. Throughout her storied 60 year career she soulfully serenaded us with lush laments about love, loss and lust which will have a long lasting legacy.
Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, a city steeped in musical history and famed for producing icons in the industry. Franklin passed up the opportunity to sign with the legendary Motown label. However, Motown's most famous artists from Diana Ross to Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson were greatly influenced by her. It’s no coincidence that the Motown Museum laid out a book of condolence when the news of her death broke, playing nothing but her music all weekend. She spent most of her life living in Detroit, with the City celebrating her life by holding a 4 day event in memorial of her passing. A send off fit for a Queen.
Her impact as an artist is first and foremost attributable to her style and skill as a singer. Her vivacious voice – a glorious mix of gospel, jazz, blues and soul. There are no words that can properly describe it – the authenticity of it, the agony in it, the strength of it, the magic in it, the depth to it. It is utterly sublime, an ethereal instrument from an extraordinary woman. It’s difficult not to have some degree of physical or emotional response to her brilliant and impassioned voice as it swoops and soars with effortless intensity.
The ease with which she skips octaves in ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’, the force of the top notes she delivers in ‘Think’, the sassiness in the liberating cries of ‘Respect’, the velvety tone of her voice in ‘Day Dreaming’ and the playfulness of her inventive phrasing in ‘Jump To It’ have influenced generations of singers.
The late singer is also renowned for her ability to so inhabit someone else’s song that it became completely her own. So much so that fellow singers would simply stop singing them. Stevie Wonder is famously quoted as saying “If Aretha took your song, you weren’t getting it back”. But she was much more than an interpreter, she wrote songs too often with her sisters Carolyn and Erma (who had a hit with ‘Piece of My Heart’). Never one to shy away, she was fully invested in the craft of record-making and was fully involved in the production of her music. Working out the rhythm part, the piano arrangement and the vocal lines. She poured every ounce of her being into each and every one of her tracks.
The fortitude of the blues, the sincerity of soul, the expressiveness of jazz and, above all, the spirituality of gospel are all apparent in her finest work. She is gone, but those songs will endure.
Make no mistake, we have lost one of the greatest voices to have ever graced this planet. Aretha is gone but her legacy, her ability to move people through her music, will remain well intact. Her place in history is secure. There is no one to fill her shoes because quite frankly she is incomparable.
The Queen is dead, long live the Queen!
Here’s a selection of my favourite cuts, on a down-tempo tip, from across her 6 decades as a recording artist. I’ll post Part II, which features the best examples of her uptempo work, in the coming days.
Track-list to follow.
Image by Bill Sienkiewicz