Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul and Woman of Wonder
Today, the Queen of Soul has put down her golden voice for the last time, though if we listen carefully in the quiet moments that sneak up on us, we'll be able to hear it again, a divine howl piercing the silence and lifting us higher.
76 years ago on March 25th, 1942, Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis to Barbara (an accomplished pianist and gospel singer, praised by none other than legendary gospel vocalist Mahalia Jackson) and C.L., a Baptist minister. With a slightly tumultuous childhood courtesy of her parents' troubled marriage and Barbara's young death, Aretha took to music. She grew up in Detroit where she learned how to play piano by ear, the first hint at the musical prowess that would grant her the title of Queen Of Soul in later years.
Aretha's first record deal came when she was a teenager, signing with J.V.B. Records, a Detroit-based label that frequently released C.L.'s emphatic sermons delivered by his "million dollar voice." This first signing would begin a series of affiliations with several labels, most notably Columbia Records (she achieved modest success with Columbia, but the label didn't work hard enough to cultivate her talent and really drive her forward) and Atlantic (who fostered her commercial acclaim and housed many of her chart-topping singles).
For over six decades, Aretha Franklin would go on to garner 18 Grammy wins, a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song in Bobby, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the very first woman to gain the honor), over 20 #1 R&B hits, and an incomparable legacy that will extend far into the future, hailing her the rightful Queen of Soul, indeed.
"I sing to the realists -- people who accept it like it is."
That's the thing about Aretha. She did sing to the realists, the people who were willing to see themselves in the way she crooned truth bombs, but she sang to the dreamers too, the people who preferred to soak in her haze of power and passion. While her voice alone had a sedative power, lulling listeners into mesmeric reveries, her words had the same effect but couldn't often be attributed to her. Aretha didn't actually write many songs. Most of her vast discography (spanning over 40 full-length albums) was written by teams of songwriters or with Aretha on co-write duty. This, then, is a testament to just how remarkable her talent is. Her sheer power transcended words. The way she makes us feel -- this raw, desperate, high-powered heart -- comes from her voice alone, fueled by incomparable spirit, a hunger to dive far down into the soul and extract goodness.
When we listen to Aretha's solo writes (particularly "Call Me" and "Day Dreaming"), this becomes even clearer. Her songwriting was minimalist, built on these sweeping, echoing hooks and sparse language, like she knew her pipes could tell a deeper story than words ever could. And she was right, because her voice was a vehicle for emotion. From her soaring sultry R&B delivery on "How Many Times" to her rich vibrato and deep dips on "Spanish Harlem," from a sweetened strength on "Every Little Bit Hurts" to a heavy trill on "Chain Of Fools," Aretha used her voice as an instrument, adapting it to match the mood and tone of each song, a chameleon of the vocal variety if ever there was one.
After 62 years of her fiery flair for giving her all and then some, the Queen of Soul leaves behind a life of spellbinding sonic beauty, singing her way out of a world that will never dare forget her innumerable contributions to music. She taught us to sing loud, to be unapologetically ourselves, to give our hearts over to music, and to let our souls lead. That's a gift far greater than any we could have asked for.
Years ago, Aretha said the following quote. It makes you wonder if she knew just how perfectly it described her own work. We hope she did.
"Music does a lot of things for a lot of people. It’s transporting, for sure. It can take you right back, it’s uplifting, it’s encouraging, it’s strengthening."
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Featured photo of Aretha by Getty.