Detroit’s own, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, made her final curtain call August 16, passing away at home from pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor (pNET). She was 76.
Franklin set herself apart from contemporaries and across generations with her boundless singing voice. Whether gospel, rhythm & blues, standards, opera or soul, Aretha could walk a pitch up an Alpine mountain range or navigate anguish in the pits of despair, touching listeners where only she could reach.
Franklin leaves a platinum legacy, having recorded 112 charted singles on Billboard, including 77 Hot 100 entries, 17 top-ten pop singles, 100 R&B entries, and 20 number-one R&B singles, becoming the most charted female artist in history. Add to that 18 Grammy Awards and 75 million records sold worldwide.
Her’s was a voice literally heard round the planet. Yet it wasn’t until the 1990s, in my early 20s that I gave Aretha a deeper look. Franklin scored late career boosts with her guest role in the 1980 cult classic The Blues Brothers, and from her hit song, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, being featured on the multiplatinum soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated film The Big Chill (1983).
This late career exposure reminded a younger and whiter audience of Franklin’s greatness and why she was such a national treasure. In turn, Franklin capitalized on this newfound popularity with the platinum selling disc Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (1985), and its million seller Freeway of Love.
This success built upon her reputation, but I was now looking backward, to find the 1960s Aretha – a woman who was sharp, hungry and still fighting on her way up.
The late 1980s into 1990, found me putting the finishing touches on an undergraduate career at the University of Iowa. I spent my nights working as a line cook at The Sanctuary, where our miscreant kitchen staff chose to hangout after hours.
Frequent late nights were spent in a haze of European imports and precarious explorations of top shelf liquor, all backed by a house soundtrack that included recordings from cats like John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Otis Redding, Ella Fitzgerald and Lavern Baker.
Sister Aretha was a regular voice heard in that rotation.
It was during this musical enlightenment period that I saw past the catchy refrain of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and peered into the darkness this woman endured, and her uncanny ability to transition emotion into song.
There are two Aretha Franklin recordings that must be included in any legitimate retrospective collection of popular music.
I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967). It went to number 2 on the Billboard Album chart and number 1 on its R&B Selling chart. The record was certified Gold, and holds the number 83 ranking on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Respect went #1. The title track and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man are amazing offerings.
Lady Soul (1968). This was Franklin’s twelfth album, and full of hits like Chain of Fools (#2), (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (#8), and (Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone (#5). The record went platinum, peaking at #1 on Billboard’s Black Albums, #2 on Pop Albums and #3 on Jazz Albums respectively. It came in at number 85 on Rolling Stone’s list The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Check out the emotional riptide that is unleashed in Good to Me as I Am to You. Lord have mercy!
She was a singer, songwriter, civil rights activist, women’s rights activist, actress and musician. Aretha forever was a powerful force in the entertainment world, for her talent that provided her a career that spanned more than 60 years, but also as a role model for women and particularly for women of color.
Franklin was given the honor to sing for three presidents, at three different inaugurations. Carter in 1977, Obama in 2009, and the one place where I had a chance to see the Queen of Soul, in 1993, when she headlined the Clinton/Gore Inaugural dubbed, “America’s Reunion on the Mall.”
Aretha became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987); a Kennedy Center Honoree (1994); and in his second term, W presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005).
In 2010, Franklin was ranked first on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, and ninth on its list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Aretha Franklin’s voice is one that comes around maybe once in a lifetime. She gave so much, now it’s her turn to take a rest and watch the show.