I can’t remember a time when Aretha Franklin wasn’t on the radio and with her death this week I can’t imagine any time in the near or distant future when she won’t be.
No one needs another person to write that her voice was a gift from the gods (Note: Or whatever you imagine the Divine to be) but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be written or talked about as a reminder of what IS possible.
A deejay in the early sixties bestowed upon her the title of The Queen of Soul where it stuck through more than half a century and will no doubt continue to do so.
The reason for this is simple: her artistry.
Aretha – as we are all want to call her – didn’t just have a voice. Plenty of people have great or unique voices. She was a person who innately understood how to use her gifts and was encouraged to do so by the people around her.
Growing up in the church, her father, the Rev. CL Franklin, was actively involved in the civil rights movement and supported her in her musical career. Her mother, an accomplished pianist and vocalist, died when she was 10 years old, right around the time Aretha began playing piano by ear and singing in the Baptist church choir.
Tutored by family friends, including famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, the depths of the gift soon became apparent. She went from church solos to releasing her first gospel album at 14. She then toured with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, another family friend, at the age of 16.
After Dr. King’s assassination she decided that what she really wanted was to sing pop and r& b and connect to a larger audience. Soon she had a deal with Columbia, and then Atlantic Records, where she forever redefined what the world thought of female pop vocalists.
Not bad for a woman who once admitted she used to “hide” from the music teacher her father hired when she was 9 or 10 because at first she really didn’t want to sing. She quickly went from someone didn’t want to someone who loved to sing and for whom it came quite naturally.
And if you have any doubts about that take a look at this 90 second video of her doing one of her signature songs – the Carole King/Gerry Goffin tune (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – over SIX decades.
Like many artists, Aretha was able to use her talent to channel what she felt, what she experienced and what she believed through lyrics and melodies of the songs she sang. The rush of power and emotion was the sum of all of her life as a young Black American woman who was born in 1942 and raised in the Deep South; who grew up with two parents who separated when she was 6 after both had children with other people; who herself got pregnant at 12 and had two children by two different fathers by the time she was 15; and who left her hometown of Detroit and her kids to pursue her musical dreams in NYC at the age of 18.
And that’s just part of the first 18 years. You can read about the rest on your own.
The point is talent and careers like hers don’t just happen to exceptional people who get fairy dust dropped on them and, in turn, have fairy tale lives. They are instead a rare collision of hard work, opportunity, genes, personal experiences, luck and more hard work that manages, once in a while, to get channeled into truly exemplary popular (and occasionally even unpopular) art.
I can remember hearing her for first time on AM radio and my Mom dancing rock n roll around the kitchen (Note: My Mom NEVER rocked out, especially in the KITCHEN). I can remember hearing her wailing on my first car radio when was I learning how to drive at 17. I hear her emanating from the speakers of a stereo down the hall during a romantic long distance affair I was having with some guy in NYC in the early eighties and I hear her some years later live at the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles after a particularly painful breakup.
Once I had more money and YouTube became available I heard her a lot more often, and often times at my own choosing. I became addicted to revisiting her brief but very welcome (and only) film appearance in The Blues Brothers in 1980; loved hearing her as the recurring theme song of the hit nineties sitcom Murphy Brown (Note: Okay, 1988-1998); watched The Grammys in awe when she substituted for Pavarotti with only 20 minutes notice and sang the aria Nessun Dorma just before the turn of the twentieth century; shed more than a few tears at Pres. Obama’s inauguration early in 2009 when she sang My Country Tis of Thee and wore THAT HAT; and have still barely picked my jaw off the floor from her Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Carole King in 2015 when she reprised Natural Woman to the woman who co-wrote it and dropped THAT COAT mid-song.
It’s said talent is a gift artists share with their audience. That’s only part of the story. The rest is a gift that one audience shares with another.
Pass it on.
“Nessun Dorma” from the 1998 Grammys
“My Country Tis of Thee” from Obama’s 2009 inaguration
“Natural Woman” from the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors