Aretha Franklin, Daughter of Detroit, Demander of Respect, Queen of Soul, First of Her Name, died today at the age of 76 at her home in Detroit. Before anything, let it be said: Aretha was a stone cold singer. The two most iconic songs Aretha Franklin belted out are cover songs. “Respect” was originally recorded by Otis Redding and “Natural Woman” was written by Carole King, but it’s a testament to the power of Franklin’s interpretation and her voice. Her voice never left her. In 1998, she shocked the world again by filling in for Pavarotti on the Grammy Awards. Her impromptu version of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma was spine-tingling. She could sing like no one else.
Aretha Franklin was raised in Detroit. She lost her mother as a young girl. Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin was recognized nationally for leading one of the largest civil rights marches in America. Before Martin Luther King’s rise, Rev. Franklin was the most revered civil rights leader in America. Rev. Franklin was also nicknamed “the man with the million-dollar voice.” His friendships with Gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward influenced Aretha’s sound. This towering man was the first to recognize his daughter’s talent and he put her in front of his 1,000 member congregation and she took off from there. Like Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, Aretha transitioned from Gospel to Soul.
Aretha was already a force to be reckoned with in music by the time she recorded “Respect” in 1967. She had recorded ten albums as a Gospel singer, with the first released when she was just 14 years old. When “Respect” came out, Aretha was finishing a five-year contract with Columbia that emphasized a jazz-pop style. “Respect” was something different. Imbued with the sound of Muscle Shoals that defined Redding with Atlantic, the recordings blended her gospel heritage with her soul chops. The sound they created defined 1960’s Soul and R&B. Aretha was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and her 73 top 100 hits are still the most for any female artist.
Aretha followed in her father’s footsteps by advocating for civil rights for all. She sang “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at the funeral for her friend Dr. King. She embodied feminism and Black Power with her unapologetic demand for respect. Aretha projected power and vulnerability. When she sang “Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors for Carole King, the vulnerability and power of her performance moved King and the Obamas to tears.
Aretha owned her narrative in a way that predated the Black Girl Magic movement. Aretha demonstrated how woman could be their authentic selves. Her influence on other artists is undeniable: from Mary J Blige to Whitney Houston to Beyonce, the music business would not be the same without Aretha’s presence.
Although Aretha’s success continued in the early 1970’s – becoming the first R&B singer to headline the legendary Fillmore West in San Francisco – her album sales flagged in the late 1970’s. But when Aretha moved to Arista Records in 1980, her career revived. She ruled the pop charts once again with songs like “Freeway of “Love” and collaborations like “Sisters Are Doin It For Themselves” (with The Eurythmics) and “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” with George Michael. Later in life she made memorable appearances at the inauguration of Barack Obama and the Super bowl.
As a personality and singer, Aretha transcended music. Jesse Jackson described her legacy: “When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll. On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her and Harry Belafonte… and they put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home… Aretha has always been a very socially conscious artist, an inspiration, not just an entertainer.” Aretha used her voice to advocate for change and that example has had a lasting influence on artists in the 21st century.