There are two biographical visions of Aretha Franklin in the streaming pipeline — one starring Cynthia Erivo and the other toplining Jennifer Hudson. Well good luck to them since the documentary ‘Amazing Grace,’ released in 2018, is the definitive document of her extraordinary vocal ability. The Queen of Soul died in 2018 and had blocked that film’s release for years, apparently unhappy with proposed payments. Whatever Aretha’s reservations about the film I believe her estate did her legacy a great service in agreeing to let this testament to her singular, unmatched talent see reach cinemas.
Every time one of the great soul stars of the ’60s passes I feel farther away from my childhood and the beauty of discovering them. They were such a vital part of the world I was raised in that they seemed immortal. Yes, their music lives on, but I struggle with the giants dying. Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Marvin Gaye gave me more than music. They gave me a sense of self. Not just as black person, but as a human being. Their will was strong. Their sense of entitlement earned. They were superheroes who moved the world. No cape needed (you see JB always tossed his off!)
Many elements made me wanna be a writer, but the music of the soul giants was at the core. I wanted to understand and celebrate them in a culture where people underestimated or belittled their artistry. In writing about them I found myself. Losing them has been to lose a bit of me. It means that the life force they possessed is gone from the earth, leaving a massive void in the universe.
I saw Aretha Franklin perform many times over the years, but the first was most memorable. It was in the late ’70s at Carnegie Hall. I wasn’t a writer yet, just a college student on a date, so we sat high up at the venerable venue. This was during a down period in Aretha’s career. Soul had been eclipsed by disco. Younger singers like Natalie Cole were hot. Aretha’s sales on Atlantic Records were falling. She was years away from her revival on Arista. Midway during the show her then husband, actor Glynn Turman, walked out of the wings and handed her a bouquet of flowers (maybe for her birthday?)
She also did a costume change, came out dressed as Josephine Baker and sang a bit in French. Despite that strange turn I would say the first forty minutes was the greatest vocal performance I have ever witnessed. Sometimes standing, sometimes gloriously playing piano, Aretha moaned, groaned, whopped, and soared through her classics. Sometimes she addressed the note directly. Often the song’s melody was just a launching pad for a magnificent journey that, from moment to moment, could be carnal, spiritual, sweet or funky.
Aretha respected great songs, while reinterpreting lyrics in ways that made them new. (If she covered a song she owned it eg: “Respect,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”) She was very much a jazz singer, but instead of swinging, she shouted. Her riffs in songs, especially after she sang the second verse, could be as intense as Coltrane. Blues, jazz and gospel could be invoked upon command.
Her musical range could be felt in her piano playing, which was highly skilled and deep with passion. Just listen to her work the keys on “Don’t Play That Song” for me! The piano sounds like bells ringing out judgement on her lying lover. (Atlantic, if there is an Aretha solo piano album in the vault, let us know.) For me Aretha’s voice captured the American experience in all its pain, beauty and variety. Like Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra, Aretha’s sound defined our national character in ways words could not. She was a symbol of blackness, of womanhood, of America. She connected with people around the globe who may not have understood every word, yet were touched by her emotion. I was upset that night when she decided to sing Josephine Baker’s music, because I wanted more traditional soul singing. But Aretha, a master at finding new life in the songs of others, was challenging the audience (and herself) to hear her in a new way. I failed the test. I wanted what I expected. She gave me something new. Lesson learned.
At age fourteen Aretha Louise Franklin was already a veteran of the black gospel circuit of the 1950s, a segregated world of charismatic preachers and unbridled vocalists traveling from church to church, bringing a message of joy, belief and salvation. Because her father Church was a spell binding speaker, Aretha was also “Negro” royalty. As a child Aretha was surrounded by the giants of gospel music — Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Albertina Walker and young Sam Cooke.
But, for all the gifted people Aretha encountered, this budding singer/pianist was not simply a protege, but a prodigy. Her gift is apparent in a recording made one Sunday morning at a church service in 1956. Accompanied by a piano teenaged Aretha sings Thomas Dorsey’s classic “Precious Lord” with extraordinary pitch and control. About four minutes in the song falls away and for the next two minutes the young woman improvises moans, groans and wops that would, one day, become staples of American singing.
Since the days of slavery right into the ’50s there had been a kind of musical dividing line between the spiritual and secular worlds. Church singers, steeped in the call & response between choir, congregation and ministers, were discouraged by custom and religion from bringing the black churches’ devotional techniques to popular music. The adventurous Ray Charles, who wasn’t deeply tied to Christianity, had helped merge the sounds, while Cooke had been one of gospel’s first major stars to abandon devotional music to sing of romantic love. The two helped inspire the “soul” generation of singers who would dominate the 1960s.
But, with due respect to both Charles and Cooke, no one epitomized the marriage of the sacred and the profane that defined as soul music like Aretha Franklin. She was a child of the church, but Ree Ree could get as gut bucket as a bluesman and as sensual a bordello bedroom. She respected melody but was never confounded by written notes, adding complex meanings to songs written by others, whether the composer was Otis Redding (“Respect”), Paul Simon (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and the Beatles (“Eleanor Rigby”). Her ability to communicate romantic yearning, thwarted desire and pure pleasure is unmatched in post- World War II American music. Moreover, along with Frank Sinatra, Charles and a select few others, Aretha was one of the defining voices of the 20th century.
The soul synthesis that so beautifully framed her voice was not achieved without trial and error. Her first run of secular recordings, made at Columbia Records largely, now sound like struggling attempts to harness volcanic energy. Jazz standards, Broadway show tunes and pop are heard throughout these recordings, many of which have merit, but failed fully work artistically or commercially. Happily, by the late ’60s the separation between R&B and gospel had been erased by the “soul” sound that was as dominant for a young person then as, say, trap is today.
In 1967 Aretha signed with Atlantic Records, was mentored by A&R man Jerry Wexler and recorded the brilliant ‘I Never Loved a Man the way I Love You,’ which featured the legendary all white Muscle Shoals rhythm section augmented by New York based saxophonist/band leader King Curtis (who co-wrote two songs on the album.) The album is the big bang of soul that heralded her ascendance to the Queen of Soul throne. She made many recordings after that album. She had hits well into the ’80s. But I go back to the ten tracks of ‘I Never Loved’ whenever I am in need of spiritual sustenance or just need to open my heart and accept the pain of life. There are novels in every song and poems in every chord. Whatever these upcoming projects tell us about Aretha’s life it is the songs on that album that truly tell her story. Put it on, listen and repeat.