Opinion | In memory of Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul
Aretha Franklin's extraordinary vocal range and ability to traverse genres made her one of the greatest vocalists in contemporary music
Two days before Aretha Franklin died at 76 on 16 August amidst reports that she was gravely ill, The New Yorker aired a special bonus edition of its podcast on which the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, spoke about the singer. The podcast was first streamed in 2016, when The New Yorker had published Remnick’s excellent profile of Franklin, in which he wrote about her place in music and in American history. In both the podcast and the profile, Remnick mentions a performance by Franklin in 2015 at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, where she sang (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, a song that Carole King and Gerry Goffin had written for her in the late 1960s.
The event at the Kennedy Center was held to honour King, and in the audience, besides King, of course, were several other luminaries, including the then-president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. On YouTube there is a video of Franklin’s performance, and if you read Remnick’s profile of the singer, he says: “Watch it if you haven’t: in under five minutes, your life will improve by a minimum of 47 per cent." If you have watched it, you will have seen Franklin, then 73, come on stage in a floor-length mink coat and sit at the piano to play and sing; a full orchestra accompanied her from the pit, and she had her crew of backup vocalists. Age didn’t diminish her astonishing voice, and as she sang with soulful passion, the reactions of the audience said it all. You can see Obama wiping away the tears; and King, who wrote the song years ago, completely in its thrall.
Franklin was known as the Queen of Soul and it isn’t hard to see why. Her career, spanning more than 60 years, began when she was a child, singing gospel at a Baptist church in Detroit where her father, C.L. Franklin, was a celebrated pastor known for his stirring sermons—in a style called “whooping", in which the reciting of scriptures reaches a frenzied and ecstatic climax. The pastor’s influence on his daughter’s singing was pronounced—both in terms of style as well as otherwise. Pastor Franklin was well-connected in the gospel, soul and R&B world and Aretha Franklin grew up with frequent house guests such as Mahalia Jackson, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and B.B. King, who would all play and sing at the Franklins’ home. The pastor was also a civil rights activist and a friend of Martin Luther King Jr, who would visit his home.
Growing up in such a heady atmosphere of music and politics must have surely left its impression on the young singer, but it was her extraordinary vocal range and ability to traverse genres that made her one of the greatest vocalists in contemporary music. She could sing notes spanning more than three octaves and once when Luciano Pavarotti had a sore throat before a performance, Franklin stood in for the famous operatic tenor and sang Nessun Dorma on stage. Franklin’s most requested song was Respect. Written and sung originally by Otis Redding, after Franklin took the song and put her own imprint on it, Respect became a feminist anthem. Redding was so impressed by Franklin’s way of singing his song that he stopped singing it himself. “It’s hers now," he’s believed to have said.
Beginning with gospel, Franklin quickly crossed over to soul and R&B. She even dabbled in pop and rock and hip hop. But to hear her best work you have to turn to her gospel albums. Such as 1972’s Amazing Grace, a double album recorded live in a Baptist church in Los Angeles. Get the “Complete Recordings" version with 27 tracks, including remarks by her father. The songs are from Franklin’s basic repertoire of standards and include the title track, Amazing Grace, Mary Don’t You Weep, and God Will Take Care of You, but the joy, abandon and passion with which Franklin sings them is stunning. The album marked a return to gospel by Franklin after many years of traversing a career in soul and R&B.
Franklin’s 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You is commonly recommended as her best. Its 11 tracks, including Respect, Soul Serenade, Dr. Feelgood, and a Sam Cooke civil rights classic, A Change Is Gonna Come, showcase a repertoire that demonstrates her eclectic talent and ability to easily sing pretty much anything she wanted to. My personal choice of the best Aretha Franklin album, however, is a different one. It’s Aretha Live At Fillmore West, recorded in 1971. The live music scene on the west coast of America then was at its psychedelic peak; and under concert promoter Bill Graham, the Fillmore West in San Francisco was its headquarters.
In that scenario, a soul singer at the Fillmore could seem oxymoronic. Yet the concert was a stupendous hit. There are 10 songs on the original release of the album, all of them great but some that are just outstanding. Franklin does her version of Stephen Stills’ Love The One You’re With; and a cover of The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby. But what takes your breath away is her cover of Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters. It’s a deeply moving performance that music lovers simply cannot afford to not listen to. There’s a lot more going for the album: Franklin plays a Fender Rhodes electric piano on several songs; and Ray Charles appears on a track to sing a duet with her. It’s brilliant.
Franklin won 18 Grammys and was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. For us she has left behind nearly 50 studio and live albums, besides dozens of compiled ones. RIP.
The Lounge List
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Amazing Grace’ by Aretha Franklin from ‘Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings’ (Live)
2. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ by Aretha Franklin from ‘Aretha Live At Fillmore West’
3. ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin from ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You’
4. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ by Aretha Franklin from ‘Aretha In Paris’
5. ‘Ol’ Man River’ by Aretha Franklin from ‘Soul Sister’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets at @sanjoynarayan