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Aretha Franklin Sang Her Way Through America’s History. Her Passing Is the End of an Era

8 minute read

When Aretha Franklin sang, out poured the sun and the moon: Her voice was optimism shaded with occasional sorrow, joy tempered by the understanding that nothing in life can be perfect, but above all it was a sound that both absorbed and radiated light. To hear it is to feel bathed in that light. Franklin died on Thursday at age 76, and her death closes an era. She belongs not just in the pantheon of great soul singers, but in the realm of great artists period: John Coltrane, Elvis, the Beatles, Billie Holiday—with them, she helped give shape to the second half of the 20th century. To tell its story in sound would be impossible without Aretha. Her warmth—her light—was explosive.

Franklin was born in Memphis in 1942, though her family moved first to Buffalo, when she was 2, and then to Detroit three years later. Her father was C.L. Franklin, a charismatic Baptist minister and Civil Rights activist. Her mother, Barbara, was a gifted gospel singer. In 1948, Barbara left her husband and moved back to Buffalo; she also left young Aretha and her three siblings, though there is evidence Barbara maintained contact with her children until her death, in 1952. What we do know is that Franklin grew up singing in the church, and then on the gospel circuit, with an often grueling schedule. C.L. began managing her career when she was a young teenager, first landing her a deal with J.V.B. Records, a small Detroit recording outfit, and later a contract with Columbia, where she made nine records under the guidance of legendary producer John Hammond.

But it was another legendary producer, Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, who set the stage for her to grow and thrive, beginning with the first song she recorded for the label at the renowned Fame studio, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1967, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).” The song, as Wexler and every musician involved in its recording knew, was extraordinary. But completion of that first Atlantic album was rocky. During the recording of that first single, the one that would give the album its title, a fight erupted between Aretha’s then-husband and manager Ted White and some of the musicians. (All of the backup band’s members were white, a problem Wexler recognized but failed to address in time.) White left Muscle Shoals and took Aretha with him. Wexler had no idea where she had gone. But a few weeks later she reappeared at the Atlantic Records studio in New York, and, Wexler wrote in his 1993 autobiography Rhythm and the Blues, “made a miracle.”

Franklin cut some of her greatest records at Atlantic—she recorded so many great songs, that it’s impossible to choose just one to serve as a signature. Her version of “Respect,” from that first Atlantic album, written and previously recorded by Otis Redding, was both celebration and warning, an assertion of both racial pride and ball-of-fire womanhood. It was a song that felt personal but also embraced a whole community; its power could reach anywhere. The string of songs that spring to mind at the mere mention of Aretha’s name seems endless: “Chain of Fools,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “Think,” “Daydreaming.” (Those last two were written by Franklin herself, who, as well as being a superb pianist, had a great gift for song craft, though she once said that being recognized as a singer was what mattered most to her.) In 1980, Franklin made the label switch to Arista: Her 1985 album Who’s Zoomin’ Who was one of the finest releases of the decade, a set of fiercely affirmative songs—like the title track and “Freeway of Love”—that felt so modern and free, you’d never imagine they’d been recorded by a music veteran already edging toward her mid-40s.

Franklin emerged from the multiple paths that had already been forged by Holiday, Nina Simone, and Mahalia Jackson: Like Sam Cooke (who was a family friend), she melded Gospel with pop music so seamlessly that now it’s hard to think there was ever a time when the two ran on parallel, if often criss-crossing, paths. Without her there could have been no Donna Summer, Chaka Khan or Whitney Houston (whose mother, Cissy, was one of the Sweet Inspirations, who often sang backup for Franklin); nor would there be a Janelle Monae, a Rihanna or a Beyoncé. She was both a pioneer and a connecting link to traditional American music, looking ahead every minute even as she never lost sight of where she came from.

Franklin rewrote the rules, and shattered the limits, of what could be done with a song. You can hear it especially in her readings of material written for and made famous by others, like Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” a hit for Dionne Warwick in 1967. This song almost wasn’t recorded: Franklin and the Sweet Inspirations were messing around in the control room, doodling with the melody and lyrics—Wexler heard them and quickly got them together with the musicians. The song was recorded in one take. Franklin’s phrasing at the beginning of “Prayer” is fleet and lilting, like stones skipping across a lake; by the end, her vocal lines have become one long, cool skim, as if she’s coming in for a landing, heading straight for the home waiting for her at the end of the song.

Warwick’s version of “Prayer” is wonderful, but Franklin’s is a world apart, at once tender and bold. She could think on her feet like few other singers, wholly recharging even songs that, as sung by others, already seemed like a done deal. She turns the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” into an eloquent honky-tonk lament, changing the lyrics to the first-person, shifting the action—and the pure loneliness described in the song—onto herself: “I’m Eleanor Rigby,” she sings. It is she who picks up the rice in the church where the weddings have been. “I’m keeping my face in a jar by the door,” she tells us, remaking the meaning of the line. She’s the performer always ready for the quick escape, the reinvention. She’s an expert at both expressing and hiding. Song by song, Aretha drew us closer. Her double helix of intimacy and mystery only ever made us want more.

Wexler wrote that he thought of Aretha as “Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows.” She occasionally confided her troubles in him, but mostly, she kept them close. In the studio, Wexler wrote, “she never hit a wrong note, never showed a second of self-doubt. There I never pretended to critique her vocals, her judgment was impeccable, her execution miraculous, and all I could do was provide the right setting or offer the occasional suggestion.”

You can see all of those instincts, that assurance, that skill, in the footage of her performance of “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” at the Obama inauguration in 2009. There are places in the song where her timbre is stretched a bit thin. But from the moment she approaches the mic—decked out in a gray felt hat adorned with an enormous bow, a look-at-me hat that also says, “Wait ’til you hear me”—her sense of authority and her dignity are overwhelming. She reinvents even this song, one most of us have heard hundreds of times, turning it into an acknowledgment that even in a nation built on bloodshed and suffering, there is a vast capacity for good. No monarchies in this country—we don’t believe in that stuff. Yet for a time, this sweet land of liberty was graced with a queen. She sang her way through one of our nation’s most charged and challenging eras, and we followed the sound of her voice. She taught us so much, just because it was pure joy to listen.

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