Full Circle

Remembering Aretha Franklin: The Voice That Shook the World—She taught the world how to spell RESPECT

Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul

Franklin with Dr. Martin Luther King in the late 1960s.

Aretha Louise Franklin, who Rolling Stone magazine correctly identified as “the greatest singer in the world,” made her transition into the next world on August 16, 2018, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 76 years old.

Franklin came into African-American consciousness first as a child, singing gospel music in the church of her father, Rev. C.L. Lewis, at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. In her late teens, a desire to branch out into secular music brought her voice into the mainstream world when Columbia Records producer John Hammond signed her to a multi-album deal in 1961.

Columbia wasn’t exactly an edgy home for her gargantuan talent. The label was run at the time by the notoriously “square” Mitch Miller, who despised the emergent rock ‘n’ roll and probably wasn’t even aware of soul music. Miller’s top acts at the time were Ray Conniff and Johnny Mathis, and Aretha was steered into a light-pop-jazz direction, where her sterling musicianship always outpaced the rather pedestrian material and arrangements.

She didn’t become an instant success, but Columbia thought enough of her to keep her on the roster until her contract expired in 1967, when a truly prescient effort by Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records (he offered her much greater creative control) successfully enticed her to jump ship.

The world has never been the same.

I spoke with Detroit jazz drumming legend George Davidson about his time with Aretha, to get a sense of the woman behind the huge voice. “She wasn’t just my boss,” he recalled over the phone with palpable emotion. “She was like a best friend. She changed bands three times and kept me—I could feel the confidence she had in me musically, personally and spiritually.”

Davidson came on board, first as a last-minute substitute in 1964, and traveled with the “Queen of Soul,” often from 1966 on, when she was still playing jazz venues like the It Club, in Los Angeles, and The Penthouse in Seattle. But it was a special engagement in Philadelphia, where he witnessed firsthand, her ability to move an audience emotionally. “Every time Aretha would sing ‘Skylark,’ while she was at the piano, it would bring tears to the eyes of the audience. We used to joke about who was going to cry that night, and sure enough one night she made the bass player cry, and he had seen her do it a hundred times! That’s the kind of power, the kind of spirit she had at all times. Whether she was playing or singing—you could feel her, man!”

Ms. Franklin’s exceptional gift of emotional communication covers the entire gamut of human feeling. Whether it was the spiritual gravitas of “Precious Lord,” which she performed at the funeral of her friend Martin Luther King, the youthful sass of “Respect,” or the bone-chilling rendition of Carole King’s (“You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” her sound cut right into the bone.

Check out that version of “Natural Woman,” from her Atlantic release Lady Soul, circa 1967, and it doesn’t seem possible to improve it. At least that’s what I believed until she performed it again for President Barack Obama in 2015, some 48 years later. That version reduces me to tears every single time I see it.

Even though she definitely earned the title, Queen of Soul, another one of her fellow Motor City musicians I spoke with for this article maintained that she never put on airs. “She was everywhere,” says Grammy-award winning producer Kamau Kenyatta. “Omnipresent in our community. When I was growing up in the late ’50s early ’60s, she was a member of the community first and a musician second. She moved and inspired everyone in Detroit—you could walk down the street and hear her music blasting out everyone’s windows. This was before central air conditioning, so everyone’s window was open.”

Kenyatta remembers Detroit’s rich musical community with fondness. “I was in elementary school when I first heard her. [Motown president] Berry Gordy’s kids went to the same school and everyone was very into soul music. Back in those days, every city had its own sound, and even though Aretha didn’t record for Motown—we claimed her as our own. Back then you could see those kind of artists in the community; you could see the Temptations or Aretha driving around—and we felt some kind of ownership—like they belonged to us.”

Soul music was the soundtrack for the tumultuous times.

“This music was so powerful back then,” Kenyatta remembers. “I mean Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Percy Sledge were permeating in the black community, and as the civil rights struggle intensified—artists like Aretha became even more important.”

Franklin appeared often with Martin Luther King and provided his organization with an incredible amount of support whenever that support was needed. She even famously put up the money for activist Angela Davis to be released on bond, although because she was out of the country at the time, she was unable to consummate the deal.

Franklin herself commented, “I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a black woman, and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people—they’ve made me financially able to have it, and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”

Kenyatta, already an accomplished musician in his own right, was still understandably nervous to meet Aretha back then. “I was ready to do whatever you do when you meet royalty,” he recalled with a laugh. “But she looked me right in the eye and took my hand and made it clear that she did not want to be treated like royalty; she spoke to me like a colleague instead of a ‘subject,’ even though I felt like one. She was very down to earth, very plain-spoken. She didn’t like to draw attention to herself off the stage. She was just a regular person, not the Queen of Soul, and most of the people in our community seemed to understand that.”

Apart from those salient features, people will remember that voice. Daneen Whitley Wilburn also grew up singing gospel. “It’s kind of weird,” Wilburn confides. “There’s this belief in the church that you shouldn’t cross over and do secular music—not so much anymore, but in the olden days; we weren’t supposed to like or support anyone who wasn’t fully committed to gospel music. So to [do that]openly like Aretha was considered taboo, but I couldn’t help it. She totally embodied everything I felt a gospel singer should be, and I loved everything she did—she was the one you strived to be like. She had this presence that radiated to every nationality, every music genre, no matter what she touched, it turned to gold, and I appreciate the way she shared her gift with the world.”

I believe that only a fellow vocalist can really describe what made Aretha stand out, and Wilburn didn’t disappoint me. “A lot of gospel singers don’t have her patience—maybe because they don’t have the chops she had. She didn’t need to jump and shout and run all around the church. She could just stand flatfooted where she was and do what she did because there was just so much inside her—even to this day I try to emulate some of the things she did.

“She was always in the pocket, but it was never overdone. You could feel the power of what she could do with her voice, but it never got out of control. Sometimes singers with great ability can get lost, but she always knew where she was going. She knew how to control it and when to let it loose, and her intuition was perfect.”

Whitney Shay is a two-time San Diego Music Award winner for Best Blues Artist. She’s another musician who held Franklin in high regard. “I honestly believe she was the greatest singer of all time,” Shay concluded, right before heading off to her second gig of the day. “Her singing seemed so effortless—there was literally nothing she couldn’t do. Her range was incredible, the conviction behind everything she sang. She made everything her own. My favorite recording is that Rare and Unreleased compilation on Atlantic.

“I don’t think there is any other singer that could pull off jazz, gospel, blues, and even opera so convincingly,” says Shay. “She inspired me to be fearless as a singer. She really went for it without ever over-singing—it was always in perfect taste. I wish more of today’s pop singers would check her out, because even though she could do runs better than anyone; hers were always perfectly placed.”

Rebecca Jade is a young singer who shares some of Aretha’s remarkable versatility. She also knows what it’s like being on the road with a superstar, having done so with Sheila E. over the last year. “I’ve been hearing her music around my house before I even knew who she was,” says Jade. “Her voice was so powerful—it took me a while before I understood where that came from. She embodied emotion as a performer—when she sings, you feel it. Even today, if I hear ‘Natural Woman,’ I lose it! She had an incredible range—a lot of her songs I can’t sing in her key because it’s too high. And I love the fact that she could play the piano so well—I wish I could do that.”

Jade also appreciates the low-key approach Franklin took in public. “She liked going places and just being herself without a large entourage. She loved her community and I heard she would show up with no security. Even though she was a superstar she didn’t need to act like one, and I thought that showed a beautiful side to her personality.”

How will she be remembered?

“First of all, there’s no replacing her,” said Jade. “There’s no ‘next-Aretha.’ You could tell it was her in a second, and that is a serious gift. I love the fact that there will be all of these tributes to her, but moving forward there will be a huge void because she was such a great spirit. I’m just grateful that I got to experience her when she was here.”

Leonard Patton is a well-known San Diego singer who is fond of pushing the envelope with radical, synthesizer-like effects sounding like a cross between Bobby McFerrin and Bill Withers. “She was the Queen of Soul. Not because of the label but because when she sang, she pierced into your heart and soul and she did it beautifully. There was and is nobody like her. Never a bad note, never without feeling, never without purpose. I hope the younger generation understands the magnitude of her influence. When you study vocals, you start with Aretha.”

Josh Weinstein is a songwriter/pianist who sees Franklin in poetic terms. “Some of our heroes are pillars; the foundation of a genre or age. Some are towers: they stand tall among giants, able to outlive their place and time. Aretha? She was something greater. She was air. She occupied a place in the stratosphere that made up part of the oxygen we breathe as musicians. She was the barometer with which we measured giants.”

It wasn’t just singers and musicians who fell under her spell. J. Otis Williams grew up in Chicago before moving to L.A. and he has been authoring a jazz and blues program at KSDS/Jazz 88.3 in San Diego for many years. Aretha’s music has been a touchstone in his life. “She represented the truth—she sang songs that she lived in real life,” says Williams. “She was hurt many times when it came to her relationships with men—like many of us, she had an up-and-down life emotionally—but she conveyed everything in her soulful music: joy and sorrow.”

“She’s one of these people who comes along like once every 250 years,” mused Kamau Kenyatta. “Thank god for recorded music, because there won’t be another Aretha Franklin. I consider her to be on the same level as John Coltrane, Art Tatum, or Mahalia Jackson.”

George Davidson remembers the girl he met back in Detroit when they were both 22-years-old. “She was like gold to me. She treated me like a member of the family, and I’m going to miss that person.”

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