17 Aug 2018

Aretha Franklin: an intense, personal voice

10:00 am on 17 August 2018

Beloved soul singer Aretha Franklin has died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 76.

Singer Aretha Franklin in 2005 in Pasadena, California.

Singer Aretha Franklin in 2005 in Pasadena, California. Photo: AFP

Franklin died surrounded by friends and family at her home in Detroit. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2010.

Aretha Franklin was quite rightly called Queen of Soul. Named by Mojo magazine as the greatest singer of the 20th century, her singing was intense and personal, technically intricate yet appearing to spring from a place of pure feeling – that place that is sometimes called the soul.

And yet she could, perhaps even more accurately, have been called the Queen of Gospel. Her mentors were great gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, not to mention the influence of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin.

For singers all over the world, Franklin was a model and a standard-bearer. Veteran New Zealand soul singer Rick Bryant says he developed his style by paying close attention to the phrasing on the Aretha records he would hear on the jukebox as a teenager.

Annie Crummer – who performed last year alongside local soul sisters Aaradhna, Bella Kalolo and Esther Stephens in Respect, an Aretha tribute, says it was Pākehā friends in Wellington who first introduced her to Franklin’s music.

“Ironic, I know! But I remember a most wonderful summer with my Wellington peeps and we listened to Young, Gifted and Black, the whole album, just recycled over and over.”

Franklin was born in 1942, the middle daughter of Barbara and C.L. Franklin. Her mother left when she was 10 and died not long after, without seeing her children again. C.L. Franklin was the famous and charismatic pastor of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church.

Records of  Rev. Franklin’s sermons, which preached a theology of liberation and racial pride, sold massively in the African American community, helping pave the way for the message of Dr Martin Luther King. Aretha would later sing at Dr King’s funeral.

As gospel historian Anthony Heilbut wrote: “Within black America, Reverend Franklin was royalty. That his daughter would become the Queen of Soul was almost inevitable.”

A prodigy, Franklin’s earliest recordings were made in her father’s church when she was in her early teens. She was not yet out of her teens when she signed as a secular singer with Columbia Records in 1961. Those early recordings were overseen by John Hammond, who was also credited with furthering the careers of Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and Bob Dylan, among others.

But the Queen of Soul title was not bestowed on her until after she left Columbia for Atlantic Records in 1966 and, under the aegis of producer Jerry Wexler, traded the jazz standards and show tunes of her Columbia years for the earthier and more contemporary sounds that had come to be known as ‘soul’.

Accompanying herself on piano, in her early years with Atlantic she recorded what would soon be enshrined as soul anthems: ‘Respect’, ‘Think’, ‘Chain Of Fools’, ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ and ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’.

Aretha Franklin performing in New York City in 2017.

Aretha Franklin performing in New York City in 2017. Photo: 2017 Getty Images

Throughout her life Franklin was an intensely private person. Biographer David Ritz claims in his book Respect that she gave birth to the first of her four children ‘two months before her thirteenth birthday’, though Aretha – who had co-authored an earlier biography with Ritz – would broadly dismiss the book as lies.

The book also chronicled many of her relationships and her marriages, to the allegedly abusive Ted White and the actor Glyn Turman.

Afraid of flying and suffering several bouts of ill-health, her touring was restricted in recent years, but her power as a performer was hardly diminished. At the 1998 Grammy Awards she stepped in, at allegedly 20 minutes notice, to sing ‘Nessun Dorma’ in place of an ailing Pavarotti.

She could still reduce then-president Barack Obama to tears with her performance of ‘A Natural Woman’ at the 2015 Kennedy Centre Honours. "American history wells up when Aretha sings," the President later explained to New Yorker editor David Remnick. "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."

The late musician Billy Preston, who often worked with Aretha, put it more succinctly when he called her “the best f*****’ singer this f***ed-up country has ever produced.”

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