FEATURE: The Soul Chronicles: Aretha Franklin and Her Incredible Legacy




The Soul Chronicles


IN THIS PHOTO: Aretha  Franklin in 1987/PHOTO CREDIT: Norman Parkinson Archive/Iconic Images/Getty Images

Aretha Franklin and Her Incredible Legacy


IT is axiomatic to say…


IN THIS PHOTO: Aretha Franklin in 1967/PHOTO CREDIT: Atlantic Records

Aretha Franklin influenced music and changed things – do we really know how far that influence spreads and how she managed to push things forward?! Many of us associate Franklin with one song, Respect. It has become her anthem and a song that seems to speak for women and black musicians around the world; people in their homes and those looking to get respect and attention. It transformed and transcended its roots and potential. Although she has an illustrious and stocked back catalogue; I have always drawn myself to that song and, I don’t know – it seems to hold a power that no other track does. Writing yesterday; The New York Times looked at the song and how it became an anthem:

Ms. Franklin’s respect lasts for two minutes and 28 seconds. That’s all — basically a round of boxing. Nothing that’s over so soon should give you that much strength. But that was Aretha Franklin: a quick trip to the emotional gym. Obviously, she was far more than that. We’re never going to have an artist with a career as long, absurdly bountiful, nourishing and constantly surprising as hers. We’re unlikely to see another superstar as abundantly steeped in real self-confidence — at so many different stages of life, in as many musical genres.

That self-confidence wasn’t evident only in the purses and perms and headdresses and floor-length furs; the buckets and buckets of great recordings; the famous demand that she always be paid before a show, in cash; or the Queen of Soul business — the stuff that keeps her monotonously synonymous with “diva.” It was there in whatever kept her from stopping and continuing to knock us dead. To paraphrase one of Ms. Franklin’s many (many) musical progeny: She slayed. “Respect” became an anthem for us, because it seemed like an anthem for her”.

The article made a salient and interesting point: Do we see Aretha Franklin as a proper, album artist rather than the singer of a famous song like Respect?! Although that track has become a moment of wonder filled with spirituality and personal strength; I wonder how far we look back at Franklin and what she gave to music. I have been listening back at albums like Lady Soul (1968) and how that is almost a greatest hits album. Chain of Fools and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman are terrific but Groovin’ and Come Back Baby are gems in their own right. In the same year as Lady Soul, we saw Aretha Now come forward: Think and I Say a Little Prayer are incredible highlights that have been scorched into the universal memory since their release. On every album, whether spectacular or merely promising; something stood out that other artists do not possess – whether it is an intuitive talent or something she acquired as she became more confident. The article I have just quoted looks at Franklin’s interpretive skills and her adaptability:

It didn’t matter whether it was a Negro spiritual or something by the Beatles. It was all wet clay to her. The Supremes, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Cohen, Adele, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, ? and the Mysterians, C & C Music Factory: She oversaw more gut renovations than a general contractor. In 1979, she took the occasion of B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” to allow her backing singer to exclaim that she (and they) were “free at last.” Toward the end of her funked-up, very fun version of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” from the 1981 album “Love All the Hurt Away,” she tossed in some “beep-beeps” and a couple of lines from “Little Jack Horner” because she knew she could make it work”.

I wonder whether we give her entire career enough adulation and oxygen. Sure, there are those supreme hits like Chain of Fools and Respect but, from her early Gospel recordings to her 1980s collaboration with George Michael (I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) and you have so many different angles and shades. She could take any song and make it her own; fuse with another artist and naturally adapt and shine – how many artists can do that now?! Yesterday, I speculated whether we will ever see an artist who has that natural icon status and gives music so much. Franklin brought religion to her music and it was her spiritual side that gave her music its ethereal, transcendent and almighty force. Whether you believe in God or not; she believed he gave her the gift of that voice and she was not going to waste it. Every album – from 1966’s Soul Sister to 1998’s A Rose Is Still a Rose – uses that voice to its maximum. She was never your everyday warbler who belted songs without thought of nuance and dynamics; she phrased words beautifully to get the most from them. Leaving pauses between certain phrases and bringing in little sighs, laughs and imperious shrugs – touches that infused her music and gave it so special character. Above all, we had a personality who was able to elevate any song to heavenly heights and touch the masses. Almost, in a sense, Franklin was a pastor: an assigned representative of God who was channelling his love through her to the people.

Another New York Times article looks at that religious significance and how she managed a hard trick: mixing the spiritual with the sexual

Aretha Franklin absorbed the entirety of the black American tradition as she moved from church singer to balladeer to the greatest voice in soul music. Yet she would go one sacrilegious step further, and in a thousand double entendres, throaty growls and shouts of ecstasy, inject sexual need into gospel music. In so doing, she made herself the forebear of everyone from Madonna and Beyoncé to Adele. (Ms. Franklin remade Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” I imagine, because the joining of gospel cadences with a cheating lover was surely irresistible to her.) Other musicians, like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, had mixed the two, but no one blended the sacred and the sexual quite as Ms. Franklin did”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Aretha Franklin at Chicago’s Cook County jail in June 1972/PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

I wanted to focus on her soulfulness and preaching because, strangely, it is something we think of when looking at her music. Artists, now, are less willing to bring religion and faith into their work. Maybe they feel people will ignore them or they simply will not be able to do their god justice. Franklin used fluctuations in volume and pauses to build tension and then exploded into a huge crescendo. Having recorded her first Gospel album at the age of fourteen; she signed to Columbia Records and moved to New York as a teenager. The piano, alongside her voice, was her weapon that she used to make songs of praise ecstatic and tender; tracks of cheating men filled with vengeance, judgement and a sense of confidence – that she was going to be alright and stronger than him. Anything and everything she touched turned to gold. Many see Aretha Franklin as a simple singer; we do not realise her incredible musicianship and interpretative brilliance. This recent article in The Guardian highlights how she used phrasing and melisma to devastating effect in her music:

When it is used most effectively, the melisma exudes sheer visceral power and can ignite existential catharsis. It suggests limitless emotional revelation and spiritual reckoning. Franklin took it to new heights. In her hands, form was also content that put a sly, critical twist on a song. If, lyrically, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) is at its core a lament about romantic abjection and, startlingly to some, about sexual submission as well (“You’re a no good heartbreaker / You’re a liar and you’re a cheat / And I don’t know why / I let you do these things to me …”), if Franklin sings a tale of love sickness as old as Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues, the form – how she audibly attacks the song itself – was a pop revelation. Our heroine sounds out the agony of unquenchable desire and couples it with astounding assertiveness. Her labour, her movement, her action become the subject of the song. Drenched in glory, she triumphs over and through the oppressiveness of the lyrics. She made her labouring body a central character in her music”.

I will end by speaking of Franklin’s legacy and artists who have followed her lead. Alongside her unique music and vocal ability; she gave voice to black lives and pushed the civil rights music forward. In the same way as she used religion to heighten her music; Soul became a chronicle of black struggle and the need for freedom and evolution. She wanted love and equality but was not willing to temporise that anger and desire. During years (and decades) when the black vote and voice was being struck against and silenced; she brought her music to the mainstream and delivered a phenomenal rebuke. Rather than attack politicians and criticise; the sheer power and grace her voice possessed not only inspired fellow musicians – and many black artists coming through – but resonated with the people. At a time when there is racial imbalance in music and a long way to go; I feel Franklin’s incredible music and messages will be an essential slogan and accompaniment. From her early Gospel days to recording albums like Amazing Grace (the 1972 hit that is seen as one of her finest); through to her later collaborations and appearances – how can we calculate the worth and impact Franklin made?! In musical terms, she is much more than a song or two: her entire progression and catalogue tells a story and charts the rise and reign of a true queen. Her civil rights importance and musicianship are another aspect; she provided messages of confidence and hope for people out there who were vulnerable or doubtful - urging a sense of togetherness and love in everything she said or performed.

You only need to perform a brief Internet search to see the artists who have been influenced by Aretha Franklin. Her death will spark fresh interest and discovery; new artists finding her music and being struck by her immense gravitas and ability. I hope Franklin’s musicianship and vocal phrasing will resound with artists in the current day. We do not see many who have her affinity for language and projection; can do so much with their voice and make any song, whether Gospel or Soul, sound like their own. Few genuine idols and standout voices have arrived in the past couple of decades – aside from the odd genius like Amy Winehouse. From George Michael and Beyoncé through to the modern breed of Soul singers – it is impossible to say just how many modern artists take something from Franklin (whether it is vocal or political; spirituality or something completely personal).

Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney and Mariah Carey have paid tribute and given their thanks; Cher, Carole King and Justin Timberlake have expressed their gratitude, sadness and love. The affection and respect for Franklin are evident: modern music is so much richer for her presence and we are all the better for having had her in the world. If a soul never dies or dissipates; that means Franklin will always be with us and watching over us. Current artists like Jenifer Hudson, Mariah Carey and Kelly Clarkson have stated how Franklin is an idol they are moved by.


IN THIS PHOTO: Mariah Carey (photoed with Aretha Franklin) made a moving tribute on social media/PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

I shall wrap things up with a quote/snippet from an article on Pitchfork but feel, given her death; we all need to look back at Franklin’s life and everything she gave to music. There is so much we undervalue and overlook; albums and times of her career that warrant investigation and fresh eyes. She was and is a role model who inspired generations and got into all of our hearts. The fact she is so beloved and people mourn so vividly speaks to her legacy – an artist whose immense voice and soulful potency will never be equalled or bettered. Although she is peerless; I hope modern artists learn from her and recognise how much she has given to us all. Pitchfork assessed her voice and catalogue and distilled it thus:

In listening to Aretha’s best songs—songs that innervate the nervous system and rattle us to our bones—we’re reminded of who we are at the spiritual level and how we are all deeply, and even maybe inconveniently, interconnected as souls. That’s what soul music is, that’s what soul music does—it illuminates the path to our mutual interdependence. Aretha’s feelingful back catalog remains a prescription for how we might find ways to how we might move away from the depressing atomization and fragmentation of modern life into soulful cooperation, getting togetherness, toward a funky “Soul Train” style dance with each other”.

Aretha Franklin’s music gave so much to so many people – each person has a different experience and reason for loving her. For her incredible, world-moving music and that incredible human behind it; the films, the albums and all the immense live performances; the highs and inspirational speeches; the grace, spirituality and immense power…we give thanks and, as many commentators have said when singing their pieces off…

SAY a little prayer.