Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died yesterday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 76.
Of all the soul singers to emerge in the 1960s, Franklin was the most electrifying. She could leap from a murmur or the most delicate melisma to a gale-force wail in a split second. She had timing and sophistication to rival any jazz singer, and breathtaking power across a formidable vocal range. A distinctive pianist who played on most of her albums as well as in concert, she incisively and economically blended blues, gospel and jazz.
The daughter of famed Detroit minister Rev. C.L. Franklin, she had a turbulent early life. Her mother died young. A teenage gospel prodigy, Franklin had two children while still in her teens. Turning to secular music, she found adulation from the Ertegun brothers at Atlantic Records and with their promotion behind her, penned and sang some of the 1960s’ most iconic hit records.
Franklin was a down-to-earth Midwesterner more interested in her craft than celebrity. A solidly built, regal presence onstage, she never let anyone encourage her to adopt a waif look. Loyal to a fault, she kept her hometown band of Detroit musicians together long after the point where everyone in the world wanted to play with her.
She was quick to call bullshit on faulty logic. Her brand of pragmatic feminism had more to do with tearing down obstacles in a male-dominated milieu than with any doctrine or theory. She loved spicy food, to the point of keeping a bottle of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt in her purse.
As soul music grew more corporatized, Franklin’s recordings and appearances grew further and further apart. Always an individualist, she didn’t embrace the disco era until it was almost over, and even then, it was a tentative embrace.
Tens of thousands of singers around the world have covered her songs, but none have been able to replicate her fierce command or fearsome vocal technique. Her hit singles, including but hardly limited to Respect, You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman and Chain of Fools have become anthems for generations of women.
In the summer of 2011, barely two weeks before this blog first went live, its future owner and a friend went out on the Coney Island boardwalk with a pair of binoculars to see Franklin play one of the last outdoor concerts in the space formerly known as Steeplechase Park (which had been bulldozed by Fred Trump in the 1980s). Backed by a full orchestra, Franklin was dealing with a broken foot and as a result played with understandable restraint, choosing her spots both vocally and at the piano.
Late one night a couple of weeks ago, this blog’s owner’s girlfriend chose the perfect soundtrack for winding down after a sweltering evening that had also begun at Coney Island. That playlist was a Franklin concert recording from the 1980s. Of all the spine-tingling devices she employed, the most memorable one was when she stunned both the orchestra and the audience by flying into a verse a split second before it was time, a thrill she just couldn’t wait to deliver. She is greatly missed.