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(Photo by Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP)
Published: 1 month ago
“Legend” becomes a small word when applied to someone like Aretha Franklin. Her influence on music is so profound, it is as if she has always been with us, her gospel-tinged siren call both able to kick off a house party or send someone on their loving way into the afterlife. Once she was crowned “the Queen of Soul” fifty-plus years ago, no other artist could assume the mantle, ever. Even after her death, time will likely prove that any attempt to transfer the title will be met by ridicule. There is nothing that can be said in honor of Aretha that would cross into hyperbole, because all stories of her greatness are true.
When Aretha was 14, her preacher father took her on the road to accompany him as he did guest sermons around the country. She made her first album during this time: the gospel record, “Songs of Faith.” She released a couple of singles from the effort, then went on tour at various times with the Soul Stirrers and The Caravans. The first song on Franklin’s debut album is “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood.” It was recorded live in her father’s church in Detroit, and in that 14-year-old’s wail, you hear everything you will ever need to know about Aretha Franklin. The temptation to assume that everything that comes after this song — every vibrato, every phrase, every drop of sweating holy spirit masquerading as soul — is owed to her gospel training is understandable, but it is a mistake. When you’re 14 and you already sound like that? That isn’t gospel teaching you how to sing; that is gospel being the first land you conquer with your preternatural gift for song. If Aretha had been raised in a West Virginia shack, her first album would have featured her demolishing a bevy of Appalachian folk songs, and it would have been overflowing with soul.
With the release of her first non-gospel record in 1961, Franklin began her journey through a phenomenally successful musical career that never let up. In seven more years, she would appear on the cover of Time magazine. She released albums as if genre did not exist, her catalog filled with R&B, gospel, and pop records, accumulating hits in every category she happened upon. In 1985, she released her first proper platinum album, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?,” 20 years into her already illustrious career. She went gold another 13 years after that with “A Rose Is Still A Rose.” Franklin was a hit machine in every decade she was present, regardless of how musical tastes changed.
In 1987, Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The museum had only one induction class prior, and of all the women in the history of popular music they could have chosen, she was the first. Setting aside any opinions you may have about the Hall or its induction practices, consider how important an artist would have to be to the whole of music to be that person, how incontestable their credentials must be, how much influence they must levy. There is not a singer after Aretha Franklin untouched by what she brought to music, whether they realize it or not. She is your favorite singer’s favorite singer. Her most enduring song is perhaps “Respect,” which is both political and sensual at the same time. Anyone can sing “Respect” — go to any karaoke night anywhere in the world and wait — but Aretha is the singer who most embodies it, whose voice most readily commands it.
It is fitting that her honorific is Queen of Soul, not Queen of Soul Music, since she could sing anything, and whatever she set her voice to became infused with soul, with Detroit and back pews, with toil and triumph. In 1998 she filled in for Luciano Pavarotti at the Grammys, singing “Nessun Dorma.” The performance is notable for three reasons: it was Pavarotti’s signature operatic aria, it’s written for a tenor, and Franklin was filling in at the last minute because he had a sore throat. Franklin wasn’t an opera singer or a tenor, and yet she flattened the world with her rendition of a song Pavarotti had been doing for two decades. She could have sung anything — one of her songs would have been just fine by anyone’s standards, especially at the last minute — but she opted to drop the needle on “Nessun Dorma.” The only thing that would have made that feat more impressive was if she walked over to the piano and accompanied herself (which she might have been able to do, as she was also a powerfully gifted pianist). In that four minute performance, The Queen of Soul became the Queen of All Divas.
When we describe a singer’s voice as incomparable, we actually mean to say: like Aretha. Any song she sang became hers, and anytime she sang, you knew who it was. Franklin sang for queens and presidents and Super Bowls and Black Panthers and victims. She was a money-where-mouth-is activist, performing on behalf of civil rights causes in the '60s and offered donations spanning the Black Power era of the '70s and various medical causes throughout her life. Even her unapologetically audacious church hat became famous in 2009 as she sang at President Obama’s inauguration. Through it all, it is important to remember that Franklin is not a hall of fame singer; she is the hall of fame. The lessons of her style are injected into the DNA of nearly every popular singer since 1961. She was church for people who didn’t attend services, the patron saint of women who have decided to take no more, the queen of clapback back when it was called “sass.” “Legend” is an enormous word for just about anyone you can ascribe it to, but not Aretha Franklin. You cannot say it about many artists, but for Aretha Franklin, legend really is too small a word.