Aretha Franklin Dead at 76: A Queen Who Embodied Black Music’s Spirit and Vision
The ‘Queen of Soul,’ who passed away at the age of 76 after a battle with cancer, was so much more than even that lofty moniker implied.
She was an icon. A legend. And so much more than that.
Aretha Franklin was one of our greatest treasures; a prodigious talent and studious craftswoman who reached the pinnacle of her profession and became a cultural avatar at a time when black women were fighting to be seen and heard on their own terms. Aretha’s ascent to superstardom coincided with Black America’s cultural assertion against white supremacy in the 1960s, and carried over through the disillusionment and disenfranchisement of the ’70s. In the ’80s, she embodied her generation’s shift into newer modes of communication and higher symbols of affluence, and emerged as a venerated elder for a new wave of soul queens in the ’90s. Aretha was always a voice and a mirror for where her people and her generation had been, were currently, and seemed to be going.
On Thursday morning, the news came: The Queen of Soul was dead at age 76 from advanced pancreatic cancer.
It’s fairly easy to rattle off the names of the legendary soul singers who have followed her path to superstardom. Gladys Knight’s commercial breakthrough with the Pips was a few months after Aretha broke big with “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You),” and Patti LaBelle’s solo emergence was similarly post-Aretha in the 1970s, as well as the debuts of Natalie Cole and Chaka Khan with Rufus. Aretha’s shadow over the singer-songwriter movement most often associated with artists like Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon gets less acknowledgement, but Aretha penned the classic “Dr. Feelgood” in 1967 and top five hits “Think” and “Sweet Sweet Baby” in 1968. She would write a string of hit originals in the early ’70s, including “Call Me,” “Rock Steady,” “Day Dreaming,” and “Spirit in the Dark.” And her skills as a pianist placed her squarely at the cusp of that burgeoning singer-songwriter shift that would be more evident throughout that decade.
“Don’t play that song for me… cuz it brings back memories of days I once knew…”
She’d been raised in gospel—a teenage phenomenon with an amazing voice, coaching by her father Rev. C.L. Franklin, and piano skills she’d taught herself as a youngster learning by ear. Rev. Franklin, the head of New Bethel Baptist Church from the 1940s until the 1979 home-invasion and shooting that left him comatose, showcased his daughter prominently and landed her a deal with JVB Records. Her debut album, a live recording from New Bethel called Songs of Faith, was released when she was only 14.
Her upbringing and ambitions were reflective of the times. She was a part of a generation of black baby boomers who were still very much tethered to the black church tradition but saw the chance for broader reach. Following the maneuvers of her mentor/hero Sam Cooke, Aretha would make the leap to secular music and eventually land a deal with Columbia. But after signing with Columbia and John Hammond, Aretha melded that strong gospel tradition to jazz techniques, and in doing so, began forging her own path musically. She reached even further into these seemingly disparate styles in a way that felt organic—even as she dabbled in a little bit of everything, from doo-wop to supper jazz to pop. It made for sporadic success on the label for the young would-be star, as she charted internationally and on the R&B charts.
But as girl groups and Motown and Stax were scaling the charts—debunking previous ideas about what a black artist could be in the pop world—Aretha’s success paled in comparison. What’s often downplayed regarding Franklin’s pre-Atlantic Records days: She was a vital, captivating performer onstage and in the studio and was becoming a successful recording artist. And in her amalgamation of jazz refinement and soul grit, she was bringing varied sonic imprints of black music into the same sphere at a crucial time in the history of black music. But she just wasn’t quite there yet in terms of stature.
“I had told everybody in the world, ‘I’m going on The Ed Sullivan Show!’” she recalled to Interview magazine in 1986. “I had the most beautiful gowns, I was going to sing ‘Skylark’ [originally released by Aretha in 1963]. I had worked with [choreographer] Cholly [Atkins] on that—and we had done the rehearsals. I remember one of my gowns was cut a little low and a voice from up in the booth said, ‘We don’t like the cut of the gown—change it.’ So we brought out two others that were higher-cut and they seemed satisfied with those, but then at the last minute they said the show was overbooked and somebody had to be bumped, and that it was me.”
Of course, her leap to the forefront of music would happen after leaving Columbia for Atlantic and teaming with Jerry Wexler, heading down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, recording at FAME Studios and releasing the towering “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” in 1967. Aretha’s chemistry with the Swampers—the legendary musicians who played on so many classic records made at FAME Studios—was instantly potent. That burst of inspired creativity occurred despite the discord outside the studio, with Aretha’s then-husband/manager Ted White butting heads with FAME’s Rick Hall. Swampers bassist David Hood remembered that recording in a 2014 interview with Alabama.com: “That session was the one where the falling out between Rick Hall and Aretha and Ted White, Aretha’s husband, and Jerry Wexler all happened. So I was there when all that stuff went down even though I was not at the hotel when they supposedly got in a fight.”
Despite the turmoil, “I Never Loved a Man…” became Aretha’s breakthrough. After that leap, she became a sensation, racking up hit albums and singles at a dizzying pace over the late 1960s. “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” and albums like Lady Soul and Aretha Arrives made her one of music’s biggest artists at a time when the civil-rights movement and women’s liberation were reshaping the national consciousness. And in those heady 1960s of assassinations and aspirations, Aretha was a black woman who owned every bit of what that meant in sound and on stage; she presented it to the world as the decade transitioned from black-and-white beehives to technicolor afros, and she was graceful in her realness—always a mix of some jazz with some blues. But the prickliness of fame was evident immediately. When she appeared on the cover of Time magazine in June 1968, she was incensed that the accompanying story presented her as a battered woman, suffering at the hands of White, who she’d married at 19.
After the Time story, the scrutiny of the media would be become something Aretha Franklin sought to skirt most of her career. Even as one of the most iconic artists in the world, she was never there to court press. Her adolescence—she’d become pregnant twice as a teen, her sometimes-troubled relationship with her father, rumors of body issues—was often something she wouldn’t broach in interviews. The coverage could be unyielding. Sometimes that coverage was peppered with brazenly racist descriptors, even while praising her. “Last night, a chunky 5ft 5in 28-year-old Negress called Aretha Franklin, known to her admirers as Lady Soul, stampeded her way through her first London concert for three years at the Hammersmith Odeon…” opened a 1970 Guardian review of one performance.
Her stature didn’t waver as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s and her marriage to White acrimoniously ended. The Time cover, the media’s pronouncement of Aretha as “The Queen of Soul,” her hits “Respect” and “Natural Woman” becoming anthems for a generation of women—it all affirmed Aretha Franklin as an artist reshaping and reflecting her times. Even a shady promoter in Fort Myers, Florida, paid a 27-year-old woman named Vickie Jones to impersonate her in 1969. She was a twentysomething star with so much ahead of her, but calling her a “Queen” was already appropriate since her greatness demanded nothing less.
Drummer Bernard Purdie recalled recording Aretha’s live 1971 live Fillmore West album. “I never witnessed anything like that because, I’m telling you, we literally rose off of the floor,” he said in 2014. “When we made that record, we were on another planet. The people could drown you out... There was nothing but pure love in that room and that house, those three nights, there was nothing like it. I don’t think I’ll ever see it again but I’ll never forget it.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever see it again but I’ll never forget it.”
And Aretha recognized how she moved people and why it mattered that a vlack woman had her kind of platform. She covered “Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone for her uber-personal album of the same name in 1972 and shared a friendship with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom she described in 2014 as “…a lovely man; he was certainly a great man, as we all knew. A man of class, integrity, and great courage.” And she praised the release of the King biopic Selma as it related to the civil unrest following the killings of Eric Garner and Mike Brown that same year. “I think most importantly the timing… what was happening way back then, and what is still happening now. I think the timing is a very important factor and that the film is going to underscore that and other things as well.”
In the early 1970s, after activist Angela Davis was arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy for allegedly supplying arms to revolutionary Jonathan Jackson and his cohorts for an attempted courtroom escape to free his brother, revolutionary leader George Jackson, Aretha voiced her support.
“My daddy says I don’t know what I’m doing,” Aretha said at the time. “Well, I respect him, of course, but I’m going to stick to my beliefs. Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up and I know you’ve got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism but because she’s a black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people—they’ve made me financially able to have it. And I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Aretha had “been locked up” for drunk driving in 1968 and for causing a disturbance in a Detroit parking lot in 1969. After she posted the $50 bail for the parking lot incident, she angrily ran down a road sign outside the police station. She was a rebel with a cause, and even at her mainstream peak, she made it clear where she stood.
“Let’s call this song exactly what it is…”
Her career would see somewhat expected dips (first during the mid-’70s dawn of disco and then again as the new jack swing era in the late-’80s revamped R&B for a new generation) but Aretha remained musically vital even throughout changing times. She bounced back a first time with the Curtis Mayfield-penned Sparkle soundtrack before a cold spell in the late-’70s led to a second comeback after leaving Atlantic for Arista, scoring ’80s hits like “Jump to It” and “Freeway of Love.” Aretha had navigated the waters of pop music middle-age better than most of her peers, save Tina Turner, and again seemed to embody her entire generation’s journey. She was vital and visible in her forties in the age of black upward mobility and urban chic; and by the 1990s, she had become regarded as one of music’s pre-eminent matriarchs. For stars like Mary J. Blige and Jill Scott, she was a blueprint on which they could draw entire musical identities. Her soulful expression rerouted an entire genre.
“The Queen of Soul” is a lofty moniker. Such designations are typically fairly empty. Aretha Franklin has been that for decades, but she’s always been more. She’s been our sister and our auntie. She’s been the sound of block parties and barbershops and the sound of Carnegie Hall and the Fillmore. She’s a lightning bolt through music history that ties together so many strands of black experience and sound. You almost have to view music through the lens of before her and after her. And she did it all as she reflected us. The grand and the gutsy. A little bit of jazz with a little bit of blues. And all soul.