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Part Eleven: Aretha Franklin
I am eleven editions into this feature and have not…
mentioned a female artist who defines what it is to be an icon. Aretha Franklin is one of the most inspiring artists of all-time and someone whose music has changed so many lives. I guess I use that phrase quite a lot but it seems very apt when we speak of Franklin. The icon died on 16th August, 2018 and it was a very sad when we lost her. Franklin had been ill for a little bit but the world was rocked when her death was announced. Even though she has been gone almost a year, her legacy remains and you can hear her voice in artists coming through. Although there is nobody quite like Aretha Franklin, it is undeniable modern artists are taking her essence and incorporating it into their work; from the power of Franklin’s voice to the potency of the songs. Born on 25th March, 1942, Franklin sang Gospel songs at church in Michigan in her early life. Her father was a minister and that early experience of being in church and being exposed to such a powerful environment rubbed off on her. It is hard to say when she first stepped into church but, like so many Soul greats, it was the power of prayer and togetherness that brought something from Franklin. To be a witness to her earliest performances must have been transformative. Being around others who were delivering prayers and songs with such intensity instilled a desire in Franklin.
By the age of eighteen, Franklin stepped away from performances in church and embarked on a secular career. Her first few recordings established her voice and promise but, having signed with Atlantic Records in 1966, the hits started to come. It must have been a hard transition to go from a more faith-based style of music to stepping into more traditional areas such as love and yearning. By the end of the 1960s, Franklin established herself as The Queen of Soul and was reigning supreme. One looks at artists now who are in a position of power and influence and, in terms of their past, there is nothing extraordinary or especially tough. Some artists do grow from humble beginnings or struggles but, when it comes to Aretha Franklin’s background, she overcame so much. Here, in this article, it is revealed what Franklin endured as a girl and, as a young woman, how her life changed:
“But her childhood was not a happy one. Amid rumours of infidelity, her parents separated in 1948 and her mother moved to Buffalo with a son from a previous relationship. A few years later her mother was dead.
The job of looking after the young Franklin fell to several women, including one who was known as the "greatest gospel singer in the world", Mahalia Jackson.
The world she grew up in was one in which gospel singing took centre stage, and where the growing popularity of her father's driving sermons led to his mission being visited by various performers like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.
It may have been because of the unstable nature of life at home that she fell pregnant and had children twice before the age of 15.
At 18, she told her father she wanted to follow in Sam Cooke's footsteps and become a pop artist, and after she signed to Columbia she enjoyed a degree of success on the R&B chart.
She was managed by Ted White, a man she married in 1961 at the age of 19 and had another child with three years later.
White was described by a number of sources as controlling, dealing out domestic abuse on many occasions.
In 1970, after their marriage broke down, Jet magazine reported that White was investigated for shooting Sam Cooke's brother, who attempted to protect Franklin when her husband turned up at her house”.
Franklin released a series of albums in the 1960s but her undeniable first ‘peak’ was when she released I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. I shall talk about this more later but, when it comes to defining Franklin and what makes her an icon, the delivery of the music has to be discussed. Her phrasing and that raw release; how she moves through the verses and emits so many different emotions, each of them pure and natural. Although Franklin co-wrote a few tracks on I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, it was the covers that really stood out. The way she heightens and transforms Otis Redding’s Respect; the explosive and passionate title track and the sheer brilliance of Soul Serenade – these tracks have survived through the decades and remains as evocative now as they did then.
Critics, naturally, were full of praise for I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You and contemporary reviews are hugely positive. AllMusic, in their review, underline the importance of Aretha Franklin’s 1967 masterpiece:
“While the inclusion of "Respect" -- one of the truly seminal singles in pop history -- is in and of itself sufficient to earn I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You classic status, Aretha Franklin's Atlantic label debut is an indisputable masterpiece from start to finish. Much of the credit is due to producer Jerry Wexler, who finally unleashed the soulful intensity so long kept under wraps during her Columbia tenure; assembling a crack Muscle Shoals backing band along with an abundance of impeccable material, Wexler creates the ideal setting to allow Aretha to ascend to the throne of Queen of Soul, and she responds with the strongest performances of her career. While the brilliant title track remains the album's other best-known song, each cut on I Never Loved a Man is touched by greatness; covers of Ray Charles' "Drown in My Own Tears" and Sam Cooke's "Good Times" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" are on par with the original recordings, while Aretha's own contributions -- "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream," "Baby, Baby, Baby," "Save Me," and "Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)" -- are perfectly at home in such lofty company. A soul landmark”.
Franklin would record a lot of big albums through the 1970s but it was two more 1960s albums that, like her 1967 release, showcases this tremendous singer who had transformed from an aspiring singer and promising force into a mighty artist who had no equals. 1968’s Lady Soul is another masterpiece that contains some iconic Franklin performances. Chain of Fools; (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and People Get Ready are all in there! Franklin inspired so many singers after her heyday and regency – including Whitney Houston and Beyoncé; others like Amy Winehouse – but can we think of any other singer who has the same gravitas and can deliver a song like she did?! Aretha Now, whilst shorter in terms of inclusions, packed hits such as Think and I Say a Little Prayer and the latter is one of my favourite songs from Aretha Franklin – written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, Franklin’s sublime ready sends shivers down the spine. Franklin’s fortunes would dip a bit through the 1970s and the 1980s especially, but that extraordinary run of albums in the late-1960s took Franklin to rare heights and revealed this staggering talent. We know a lot about her music and those brilliant albums but it is clear that Aretha Franklin’s personal life enforced her music. The Guardian, following Franklin’s death, discussed her private life and how success mixed alongside struggle. I wanted to quote a few passages that talk about Franklin’s pains but also how she got involved with the civil rights movement and became this voice for America:
“Franklin’s fraught personal life was instinctively understood by the select few she allowed into her circle, particularly the female soul singers with whom she bonded. “There was always an unspoken understanding between us,” Etta James later confessed, “...we’d be drawn to men, the wrong men, who weren’t in love with us, but were in love with who we were.”
In Franklin’s case, the pain and heartbreak were transmuted into song, sometimes expressed with an almost casual, but paradoxically powerful, delivery that belied the traumas of her life. The cost, though, was often high, and her life was punctuated by mysterious illnesses and bouts of severe depression.
In all of this, Franklin expressed her own personal struggles as well as the simmering discontent of an America in which race was – and remains – a fault line. Fifty years after she reluctantly travelled down to Alabama, the ideology of white supremacy is once again being openly expressed in parts of the American south not that distant from the studio where she recorded her first great soul song, surrounded by white musicians awed and inspired by her talent.
When people say she was the voice of America, there is an obvious truth in that, given the integrated context in which those early soul songs were created and the singular journey they precipitated. She went on, after all, to sing for presidents, her voice distilling the aspirations and hopes of the Obama era in particular, and by extension of a nation that finally seemed to be coming to terms with the legacy of slavery and segregation”.
It is hard to put into words how important Franklin was and how important she remains. The way she spoke out against injustices and represented the civil rights movements inspired millions. Her music translated beyond genre boundaries and compelled generations. I discovered Aretha Franklin when I was growing up and was not a huge fan of Soul.
PHOTO CREDIT: Rick Kern/WireImage.com
Maybe it was my rigidness, but I got into Soul through Aretha Franklin. I was instantly hooked and blown away by this incredible voice and the way music could get into my bones. I followed other Soul artists but it was Aretha Franklin that lit the fuse and stands above the rest. This article from Legacy drills down to the core: the fact that there is nobody like Franklin:
“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”.
I will round things off in a minute but, before I do, I want to bring in an NME article that explains how Franklin transitioned from that incredible period of the late-1960s and continued to evolve in the 1970:
“American history wells up when Aretha sings,” Barack Obama said in 2015. “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll – the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
Franklin’s success would continue into the early ’70s, when her 1972 gospel album ‘Amazing Grace’ would sell 2 million copies, and she became the first R&B singer to headline San Francisco’s Filmore West venue. Further albums on Atlantic fared less well, however, and it wasn’t until moving to Arista in 1980 that her career was revived, thanks to poppier hits such as ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’ and ‘Freeway Of Love’ as well as successful collaborations with The Eurythmics on ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ and George Michael on ‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’. Over 20 years on Arista, Franklin established herself as a grand dame of soul music, and since leaving the label in 2004 has made celebrated appearances at the 2006 Superbowl, at President Obama’s inauguration and at the 2015 ceremony to honour Carole King at the Kennedy Center Honors”.
There has been nobody like Franklin since she came into music and I do think we will ever see another singer like her. Even though nobody can walk in Franklin shoes, so many artists have been inspired by her.
I have mentioned a few but listen to the likes of Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera and how you can hear Franklin in their voices. There is no telling just how far Franklin’s influence extends - but it is clear her inspirational messages and scintillating performances have compelled so many. Consider the performance of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman at the Kennedy Centre Honours during the section for honouree Carole King. That performance set the Internet alight and I can think of few other performances as moving and spellbinding. It is hard to explore Aretha Franklin in proper depth and explain why she is such an icon. Her earliest recordings are immense but make sure you check out her albums of the 1980s and beyond as there is gold to be found. Her live shows were the stuff of legends and the way she raise awareness of corruption and social injustice cannot be understated. Franklin was more than an artist. She was a leader and spokesperson for those who wanted to see change and equality. I have covered a few female icons already but I do not think any of them have quite the same legacy as Aretha Franklin in terms of what she achieved and the people she has inspired around the world. I shall end things now but, after you listen to my playlist below, do some more digging and investigation and realise what an amazing artist…
ARETHA Franklin was.