“Hey Nineteen, That’s ‘Retha Franklin….”
IN THIS PHOTO: Aretha Franklin/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Remembering the Queen of Soul
I starting typing this piece…
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
when I heard the news that Aretha Franklin was gravely ill in Detroit. It seems fatalistic and a little insensitive but, sadly, one knows where such news leads. The seventy-six-year-old is one of the last true icons in the music world and, hearing the news she seriously ill, did not get me thinking of sadness and mortality: I was thinking about the lyric that inspired the title of this piece: Steely Dan’s Hey Nineteen from their album, Gaucho. In it, the middle-aged protagonist (Donald Fagen) is aghast that ‘Ninteen’ (a teenage suitor) does not know who Aretha Franklin is. Rather than argue and provide a concise history of Soul; by the chorus, he is yearning for her Cuervo Gold and “fine Colombian”. That was not the first time I had heard Franklin’s name being mentioned through song, either directly or indirectly. That Steely Dan song came out in 1980: my discovery of the Queen of Soul must have happened sometime in the 1990s. The first thing that hit me was THAT voice. Her 1967 rendition of Respect (originally released by Otis Redding two years previous) blew away critics and led a rather green Redding to confess her version added new layers to his song. That is the song we associate with her and for good reason.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Seliger/STYLING: Yashua Simmons
It turns Redding’s tale of a desperate man who needs a lifeline and attention from a woman, in Franklin’s hands, is a mandate and anthem for respect and attention. In her version, she is in command and puts in a scintillating performance – transforming a somewhat piteous and defeatist lament of Redding. There are many other reasons why Aretha Franklin is the undisputed Queen of Soul. The album Respect was taken from, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, is a five-star classic that houses, among other gems, the title-track; Sam Cooke’s Good Times and A Change Is Gonna Come. The way she could turn songs like Think and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and make them distinctly her own is incredible. Great singers, whether they are performed original material or covers/songs written by others inhabit the material and bring fresh perspective to it; they make it their own clothing and create something wonderful. Franklin is one of a small handful of singers, including Elvis Presley, who blows you away with their voice and sheer panache. Set aside the influence Franklin has and her incredible style; you have this powerhouse vocalist who could bring the house down and bring tears to the eyes. I recall watching a video of Franklin performing Carole King’s (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015 and moving an in-attendance King to tears. It received a standing ovation and showed, in her seventies, she still had that awesome power and command.
Last year, Franklin cancelled a series of gigs on doctor’s orders; she has had health problems through her career but has always managed to make it through. From removing a tumour in 2010 – doctors said it would add fifteen to twenty years to her life – to dropping a lot of weight during a crash diet in 1974; the tough and tenacious artist has always been drawn back to music and the desire to perform. Franklin’s last, proper studio album was 2014 Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics received great reviews and saw her tackle songs from the likes of Dinah Washington and Adele. A Brand New Me, released last year, saw the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra add their qualities to existing Aretha Franklin vocals. Although the reviews were not particularly good; it was another case of people wanting to pay tribute to the Queen of Soul. That was her forty-second studio album and arrived an incredible fifty-eight years after her debut. During that incredible career, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1979); she was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in n 1987; the second woman inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005 – so many honours and fantastic achievements! Many see Franklin as the voice of the civil rights movement and a symbol of black equality – at a time when there is still racial inequality around the world, that voice and memory are ever-important and crucial.
Jennifer Hudson is to play Franklin in an upcoming biopic and it will take on a sad tinge given the news we have received. It is hard to say how many singers, politicians and public figures she has inspired and made stronger. You can hear the influence of Franklin in everyone from Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé; Adele and any number of female vocalists whose power and potency recalls the unbelievable spirit of Franklin. Popstars like Mariah Carey have been inspired by Franklin and, look around music, and you will identify so many who owe what they do to her. Soul is one of those genres that is always slightly away from the mainstream but always relevant. During Franklin’s reign, she managed to put it to the forefront and it, in her hands, had the same force and physicality as Punk and Rock. Now, decades after her golden era, I wonder whether artists need to take from her and bring Soul right back to the mainstream. It will not be easy but the fact Franklin captivated the world and affected such change has not been forgotten. I am a big Soul fan and always struggle with the fact it is never given the respect it warrants. R&B and Rap get plenty of focus but what of Soul?! Maybe there is nobody out there who can match Franklin but, following her passing, there will be stars and artists coming through who want to follow in her footsteps.
This article, published in Elle in 2016, looked at the legacy of Aretha Franklin’s Respect, some fifty years after its release. They spoke with various figures who gave their impressions on the song – and what Franklin’s music meant to them:
“And Gloria Steinem, a journalist edging toward the crusade that would define her life when "Respect" hit the radio, says, "I always felt that nothing too bad could happen in the world while I was listening to Aretha Franklin. Everything was good, including that I could dance with nobody around. True, there was a line in 'Respect' that made me anxious for both of us: something like, 'I'm about to give you all my money.' But I figured Aretha knew what she was doing, and nobody was going to mess with her. With us".
The interviewer sat with Franklin and asked her about feminism and race relations in the U.S. now (2015):
“Franklin thinks feminism is working. "The president of the Kennedy Center is a woman. Women are moving into fabulous positions," she says. The women she's met and admired are a diverse lot: Coretta Scott King, Steinem, Oprah, Barbara Jordan. As for young female singer-songwriters, she's a fan of Alicia Keys, Adele, and Jennifer Hudson; she calls Judy Garland "one of the greatest singers there was."
When I ask Franklin about the presidential race and the current state of race relations, she seems reluctant to offer an opinion, saying instead, rather wistfully, "People are not as nice as they used to be. There used to be a time when we conversed. You don't get a lot of real responses now. They used to be more polite and well-mannered people, generally. It's minimal now." She pauses, and then: "I think it would be a far greater world if people were kinder and more respectful to each other." Respect: There's that word again”.
One of the most poignant interview quotes from recent times is in 2016 when People interviewed her. Franklin was asked which of the current singers should inherit the title of the Queen of Soul. They projected a few names but the reply from Franklin was to-the-point and expected:
“There’s a lot of great singers out here,” Franklin tells PEOPLE diplomatically while celebrating her 74th birthday at the Ritz Carlton in New York City on Thursday, joined by Clive Davis, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Tamron Hall.
But when asked who she’d want to pass the diva torch to, Franklin’s answer was simply, no one. “I’m here!” she said with a smile. “I’m not going anywhere. This is what I do”.
That may provoke a tear or a wry smile because, however you look at things, her music is always in the world and her brilliance cannot be topped. I do not think there will be anyone who will dare challenge her title and can get anywhere near. Rather than try to equal Aretha Franklin or copy what she does; the legacy and influence will pass through the ages and, as the playlist at the bottom of this feature shows, she has managed to achieve so much brilliance during her six-decade recording career (more if you count the songs she was recording as a child). It is always heartbreaking losing an icon who has followed all of us and enriched our lives. Aretha Franklin was one of the last, great Soul performers and one of those artists who has managed to change music and society. There will be tributes played and sadness but, as Franklin said in that 2014 interview: “I’m here!”. Although she is not with us anymore, that quote above really sticks in the mind. It is true that, no matter how much times passes…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
SHE is not going anywhere!