How Aretha Franklin's brilliance transcended race and politics

by James Belfield / 25 August, 2018
Aretha Franklin in 1973. Photo/Getty Images

Aretha Franklin in 1973. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Aretha Franklin

The Queen of Soul had a gift that made songs her own. James Belfield pays tribute to Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018.

“When she sings your song, she takes it, and you don’t get it back.” Stevie Wonder pays tribute to Aretha Franklin.

When a 17-year-old Stevie Wonder wrote Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) in 1967, it was a song about a young kid tapping on the window of an ex-girlfriend and pining for a chance to win her back. It didn’t earn a release as a single.

Six years later, Aretha Franklin ripped into the song and made a million-selling, chart-topping soul classic about obsession and desperation. The words are the same, but her passion and stress – she’ll change, she’ll beg, she’ll swallow her pride just to stop “living in a world of constant fear” – are straight from a broken heart.

1967 was also the year Franklin was dubbed Queen of Soul – when blues DJ and promoter Pervis Spann placed a crown on her head at Chicago’s Regal Theatre – a reign that lasted until her death on August 16 at her home in Detroit, aged 76.

Wonder – with whom she was still planning to work in the final months of her life – was one of the last people to speak to her and one of the first to pay tribute to a career that included 41 studio albums, 18 Grammys, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, being the first female Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“She touched every genre and every singer … they will forever be influenced by her because of her voice, her emotion – her sincerity is unforgettable,” Wonder said.

That sincerity and emotion sprang from Franklin’s gospel roots. It’s telling that Wonder recalled listening, in the mid-50s, to the young singer’s solos at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was a celebrity pastor thanks to his sermons and links to gospel musicians and the civil rights movement.

The teenage Franklin followed in her father’s footsteps and toured with Martin Luther King. When she sang Precious Lord, Take My Hand at his funeral in April 1968 – when she was 26 – she was already “the voice of black America” and had been honoured with her own “Aretha Franklin Day” in Detroit. She would appear on the cover of Time magazine the following month.

At Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Photo/Getty Images

That emotion also came from a tough upbringing.

Songs such as Respect and A Natural Woman are so imbued with Franklin’s personal storylines – she lost her mother before she was 10, was a mother of two by 15 and had an abusive relationship with her first husband/manager Ted White that ended in 1969 – that it’s easy to forget they were originally written by Otis Redding and Carole King respectively.

Her way of scattering lyrics and singing in front of the beat gave her complete ownership of the songs. It seemed impossible the words weren’t straight from her own life.

It’s also easy to overlook her own, varied songwriting talents, ranging from the secular hymn to sex that is Dr Feelgood and the pure funk of Rock Steady to the gospel-soul of Think, which stormed its way back into 80s popular culture thanks to her standout cameo in The Blues Brothers.

That movie marked another resurgence. Duets followed with pop superstars such as Whitney Houston, Elton John, George Michael, Annie Lennox, Mariah Carey and Mary J Blige, ensuring she stayed in the limelight well into her later years. And when the Super Bowl was played in Detroit in 2006, she was the natural choice to sing The Star Spangled Banner alongside Aaron Neville and Dr John.

For many, her 2015 performance of A Natural Woman at the Kennedy Center Honors – in which she accompanied herself on piano and reduced Barack Obama to tears and Carole King to eye-rolling ecstasy – is her enduring legacy. It was a demonstration of how she transcended politics and race while remaining a key part of America’s battle to harness both.

But for a woman who used “to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use”, probably her standout moment was filling in for Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammys and singing Nessun Dorma. Opera purists might recoil at some of her sliding, soul-inspired notes, but after Pavarotti phoned 30 minutes into the show to say he couldn’t perform, and having listened to only a cassette recording of the rehearsal, Franklin stepped up to the mic and proved that she could take a Puccini aria and never give it back.

This article was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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