Aretha Franklin sings “My Country ’Tis Of Thee” during the 56th presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009. (photo by Cecilio Ricardo, U.S. Air Force; courtesy Wikipedia)
Jerry Wexler dubbed her “Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows”: the depth of her sound and ability to connect us to something primal owes something to that sorrow. To say her childhood was unusual is like calling her a singer. It’s not even close to the full story. Her father C.L. Franklin, a nationally-known preacher, fathered a child…with a child. A girl just 12 years of age. The great minister showed no repentance. She started singing in the church and one of her early influencers (besides her father, a masterful singer himself) was Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of modern gospel. He played piano in a whorehouse to make money while working on his gospel music. Her upbringing and life were full of contradictions and her temperament mirrored that.
After Aretha Franklin’s death, I found myself in the car unable to turn off the radio. The public radio station was playing a tribute to her. It’s hard to not acknowledge the raw power of her voice but that isn’t what had me mesmerized. I am not an Aretha Franklin aficionado nor do I love all her music, and I never saw her perform live. She had a long career and it had peaks and valleys. By the time I came of age her first flush of fame was over and her later hits don’t speak to me as much as the songs of the 1960s, which by the time I was a teenager were already “oldies.”
A Cultural Icon
She is the type of musical star whose genius I took for granted. Her hits are so woven into the culture that I didn’t ponder the depth of her talent. Her passing made me want to really hear her. To listen with more intent. If you only watch one Aretha performance go look at her singing at the Kennedy Center Honors when Carole King was honored. She had already been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and at 73 years old she is performing with more power and emotion than any younger person in any genre. It’s a remarkable performance of “Natural Woman,” a mere 48 years after it was a hit single. Many of her hits became an anthem for a lot of women in the late 1960s and beyond. She made music that influenced a generation. As musical activism, it commented while still entertaining. Aretha took us to church but didn’t preach.
A Mysterious Power
There are many African American women vocalists who can belt in that range. Her power was unique but not absolutely singular. If you go into a gospel church you will hear women singing with a similar range, and maybe once in a while with that power. Some of the things that made her so special are difficult to put into words.
From a singer’s perspective, I think she had a unique ability to swing thru the belt. She bounced in time within the structure of one note. Her vibrato is in time. Sometimes double time or more but her entire instrument was the definition of “tempo.” The brave might try to sing along, but mostly she creates in us a desire to move in some way.
I’m not talking about dancing; though that, too. It’s more of an action that happens almost unconsciously. You will sway or tap a finger—maybe not to every tune and, since art is subjective, not every person will be so moved—but more often than not she does stir you. Her sound is syncopation fused with passion and when her material is as good as her voice it’s truly an experience.
We need words for the intangible and so we come up with words like “soul” and “swing.” She has both of those, and something else. Smokey Robinson and a few other Motown legends grew up with Aretha in Detroit and Smokey said, “Hers was a true gift from God.” He first met Aretha when he was visiting her family home and found her sitting and playing piano “not much different from how she did as an adult.” She was five years old. A prodigy.
After she got national recognition traveling the country singing gospel, Aretha moved to New York City and was signed in 1960, at age 18, to Columbia Records as a jazz artist. As a child, her father’s parlor held court to the likes of Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, and Lionel Hampton. Dinah Washington was known to give singing instruction to the Franklin girls.
Grown From Jazz
The roots of early jazz and blues were definitely part of her musical education, and in my research, she repeatedly praises the genius of Art Tatum and stated that his style of playing greatly influenced her singing. From her third studio album for Columbia she had her first top 40 success with the single “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” Her producer at Columbia was John Hammond, the man responsible for introducing Benny Goodman to Fletcher Henderson. Hammond produced the last records by Bessie Smith and the first records by Billie Holiday. Jazz and Aretha were more than friends; they were kissing cousins.
Her next record company move would be to Atlantic Records, where Jerry Wexler fully recognized her genius and let Aretha be Aretha. Without Wexler, who knows if the Queen of Soul would have arrived? I like to think genius would have won out but it’s been my experience that genius alone might not have been enough to scale the fortress of American pop music.
The Queen of Soul
And in case you wonder: yes, there was an “official” Queen of Soul ceremony. We just can’t be certain of the year. It was either 1967 (most put it here), ’64, or ’68—the sources differ. This was before the internet and memory being what it is there are different dates associated with the event. We do know it was in the city of Chicago at the Regal Theatre where she was headlining a concert when a DJ by the name of Pervis Spann came up with the title—and, yes, there was a diadem placed upon her head.
One of the things Wexler did was have her record material that resonated with her and, unlike her earlier producers, he understood her. Wexler wanted to find a hit single for Aretha. He was in his limo and he saw Carole King and her husband/writing partner Gerry Goffin walking on Broadway in New York City. He rolled down his window and said. “I’m looking for a really big hit for Aretha. How about writing a song called ‘A Natural Woman?’” Wexler rolled up the window and drove off. The next morning King and Goffin had written a hit single.
Like many performers, Aretha’s comfortable happy place was on stage or creating music in a studio. As her career progressed, she was responsible more and more for her own producing and arranging. It was Wexler who, during a difficult session where it wasn’t quite right, said, “Aretha, go play the piano and sing it.” That was the answer: let Aretha figure it out.
She witnessed first-hand the civil rights movements, even singing at Dr. King’s memorial. Her contract always required that stacks of 100 dollar bills be in her dressing room or she would not go on. She wasn’t going to risk having to fight to be paid. She had a lot of fights physical and emotional. Her path to superstardom wasn’t smooth and she suffered some serious years of horrible depression.
She won 18 Grammys (with 44 nominations) and was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Yes, Aretha, I’d say there is R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Randi Cee is a bandleader and vocalist based in Los Angeles who specializes in swing and hot jazz. Visit her online at www.randiceemusic.com. Read her monthly, usually humourous columns here.
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