The only queen we’ll respect

August 23, 2018

Nicole Colson pays tribute to what made Aretha Franklin an unforgettable artist.

“I JUST lost my song. That girl took it away from me.” When Otis Redding informed Atlantic Records head Jerry Wexler that his song “Respect” was no longer his own, he was simply acknowledging the truth.

In the time it took for America to hear Aretha Franklin demand “R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me,” a song that had been a heartfelt plea from a Black man to a domestic partner suddenly carried a deeper meaning: the promise and warning of a Black woman who refused to be cowed by a man or by life any more.

As the Queen of Soul, Franklin, who died on August 16 at the age of 76, faced hurdles in her early life that might have derailed many people. Her mother left the family when Aretha was six and died a few years later. She was painfully shy and left formal schooling by age 14 to begin touring full time. She would have two children by the age of 18, and she suffered abuse at the hands of her first husband, Ted White.

Yet she became, as Dorian Lynsky wrote in the Guardian, “the singer all others are measured against.”

Aretha Franklin (left) and Martin Luther King Jr. on stage together in Detroit in 1968
Aretha Franklin (left) and Martin Luther King Jr. on stage together in Detroit in 1968 (UM Bentley Library)

It was that voice — that soaring, swooping, piercing voice with its ecstatic highs and melancholy lows — that became an embodiment of the longing for freedom and equality. The songs were soul music, but that spirit was shaped by the civil rights and Black Power movements, and the burgeoning women’s movement as well.

“This is a voice that has not only sound but a smell and a depth,” poet Nikki Giovanni would say. “A taste. You hear Aretha, but you also lick your lips.”

ARETHA FRANKLIN was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1942 — the city and surrounding area that was home to many of the great soul singers and musicians of the 20th century — to a preacher father, C.L. Franklin.

Franklin’s ministry was incredibly popular, and the media-savvy pastor used weekly radio sermons, later recorded and released by the Chess label, to preach the gospel, as well as Black dignity — earning him the title of the “Man with the Million Dollar Voice.”

A friend and collaborator of Martin Luther King, Franklin would tour the country, giving sermons, with a gospel caravan and teenaged Aretha in tow.

When the family moved to Detroit’s East Side in 1946, Aretha was surrounded other musical greats who attended or were connected to her father’s ministry, including gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, plus popular music icons Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington and Lou Rawls.

At age 14, Aretha cut her first album — a live gospel recording from her father’s New Bethel Church. Describing the depth of her singing, author Peter Guralnick wrote that the 14-year-old Franklin brought “far more to [the music] than mere imitation. There is an intensity of feeling, a pure musicality that cannot have been counterfeited; there is a sense of pain, a resonance of emotion and experience that, while not uncommon in the gospel field, is most uncommon for a 14-year-old.”

Moving to New York at age 18, Aretha began pursuing music full time, touring and signing to Columbia Records. Her first Columbia album, released in 1961 was a decent effort — a mix of rhythm and blues and more sentimental and pop standards.

The album did well, but in the following years, Aretha’s sales and style stalled. It was clear that both the record label and Aretha herself were struggling to find her style and voice, with songs that ran the gamut from show tunes to maudlin ballads. “My music is in me,” she said at the time, “[but] I’m not sure what that is.”

AFTER FIVE years and a string of lackluster albums at Columbia — as well as another child and personal turmoil from her 1962 marriage to Ted White, who became her manager and would assault Franklin in a hotel lobby in 1967 — Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler put Franklin under contract and took her to record at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where so many great soul records were made.

There, Wexler later said, he “took her to church, sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself.”

At this first legendary — and legendarily brief — Muscle Shoals session, Franklin promptly sat down at the piano and proceeded to blow away the skeptical men in the room. As musician and producer Dan Penn recounted to Guralnick: “When she come in there and sits down at the piano and hit that first chord, everybody was just like little bees, just buzzing around the queen.”

The song was “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” As the off-the-cuff arrangement of horns and electric piano began to coalesce, “by midafternoon, the song was complete, one of the most momentous takes in the history of rhythm and blues — in fact in the history of American vernacular music,” Guralnick wrote.

As the afternoon wore on, however, the second song — “Do Right Woman” — was a mess, vocally and instrumentally. A mix of frustration, booze, volatile tempers and a trumpet player who got fresh with Franklin led to a series of escalating arguments, and the rifts deepened after Muscle Shoals owner Rick Hall and Ted White had a second blowout fight later in the evening.

After her own fight with her husband, Aretha left the city at 6 a.m. the following morning. Soon after, she split from White as both her manager and husband.

Though she would never return to Muscle Shoals, the importance of that single, aborted session would shape Franklin’s style for years to come. Though he could not get her back to FAME, Wexler managed, through subterfuge, to get many of the Muscle Shoals musicians to New York to back up Franklin at a session there — to the supreme annoyance of Rick Hall.

By then, “Do Right Woman” had been transformed by Aretha. “[M]an, I never been hit so hard in my life,” Penn said of the song. “She’d gone in there and put that really finesse piano on, and her voice and her sisters’, and everything was so right on.”

Franklin’s first six singles for Atlantic would break into the top 10 in the pop charts — with all but one reaching number one on the soul music charts.

Listening today, you can hear the joyful catharsis amid the pain. The familiar sentiments of pop music — the misery of the wronged woman, the pledges of love and devotion — become fresh through Aretha’s voice, a feat that only the best music is capable of.

And down in the depths of these songs is an undercurrent — a longing for freedom and liberation that exists below the surface in so much of American soul music.

SUCH WAS the impact of that first Atlantic album on Black popular consciousness that when “Respect” began climbing the charts in the summer of 1967, Ebony magazine declared that it was the “summer of ‘Retha, Rap, and Revolt” — referring to Franklin, Black Panther H. Rap Brown and the Black Power struggles and urban uprisings.

On first glance, Franklin might seem to be an odd inclusion on a list with the revolutionary civil rights activist and the explosive urban rebellions.

But if, as Martin Luther King said in 1968, a “riot is the language of the unheard,” then soul was the music of the unheard, expressing in its depths the pain of life in a society built on racism and oppression, as well as the beauty and struggle in longing for change.

Franklin’s music was seen as unapologetically Black, demanding women’s equality — and, in many cases, a claiming of women’s sexual expression as well. As author Suzanne E. Smith notes, Aretha’s “songs became anthems — the soulful sound of a movement that increasingly seemed propelled by Black pride and power rather than earlier ‘dreams’ of racial integration.”

This is why, in Franklin’s hands, Otis Redding’s song “Respect” was seen as a cry for rights beyond those of women in their personal relationships — or why “Chain of Fools,” would later become especially popular with Black soldiers in Vietnam.

As Franklin would explain to Jet magazine in a 1970 interview, “Soul music is music coming out of the Black spirit. A lot of it is based on suffering and sorrow, and I don’t know anyone in this country who has had more of those two devils than the negro.”

As Dorian Lynskey adds “She might have added that Black women were particularly attuned to these two conditions. On Black feminist anthems such as ‘Respect,’ ‘Think’ and ‘Young, Gifted and Black,’ she sounded indomitable, drawing strength from the social movements of the time and repaying it twice over.”

Comedian and activist Dick Gregory talked about how Aretha became central to people’s lives: “You’d hear Aretha three or four times an hour. You’d only hear [Martin Luther] King on the news.”

WHILE NOT closely identified today with the civil rights movement, Franklin at multiple points lent her overt support, touring with King, Harry Belafonte and others.

When Detroit held “Aretha Franklin Day” on February 16, 1968, it was not only about Aretha, but about celebrating the Black talent and hope that Franklin represented, in a city still struggling in the aftermath of the previous summer’s urban revolt.

At that celebration, King traveled to the city to present Franklin with a special award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Exhausted and suffering from laryngitis, King spoke only briefly. As Suzanne Smith wrote:

As the civil rights movement’s most powerful orator rested his voice, the Queen of Soul exercised hers. The momentary contrast between King’s silence and Franklin’s multi-octave range embodied the shifts that were transforming the face of Black struggle in America. Aretha’s rendition of “Respect” was the crown jewel of her repertoire, an anthem of the dispossessed, and expressed the spirit of King’s agenda as no speech could have.

Less than two months later, King was assassinated in Franklin’s hometown of Memphis, sparking even more urban rebellions. Franklin volunteered to sing at his funeral.

In 1970, when Black radical and communist Angela Davis was arrested on trumped-up charges after guns registered to her were used in a courthouse standoff, Aretha publicly offered to post the $250,000 bond. She explained why she was standing in solidarity:

My daddy says I don’t know what I’m doing. Well, I respect him, of course, but I’m going to stick by my beliefs. Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit], and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in.

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.

As Davis told Democracy Now! after Franklin’s death this month, it was a “high point in the campaign. And I believe that many people who may have been reluctant to associate themselves with me because of my communist affiliations probably joined the campaign as a result of Aretha’s statement.”

Later in the interview, Davis added:

I think that Aretha always produced this kind of community through her singing....I think that her contributions to the creation of a kind of yearning for freedom, a way in which she helped to create communities — one might say, aesthetic communities of struggle — is so absolutely essential.

Franklin could be inconsistent, in both album quality and her live performances. She was famously hard to work with, and her music was sometimes overly sentimental.

But at her best, no one could touch her. And it seemed that experience simply made her voice better, as she said in the 1980s. As testament to that, listen to Franklin’s rendition of the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammys, when she stepped in at the last minute to perform for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti.

As musician Billy Preston once told David Ritz:

I don’t care what they say about Aretha. She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world.

But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know — you’ll swear — that she’s still the best fucking singer this fucked-up country has ever produced.

WE CAN never let Franklin’s legacy, as both an electric performer and as a beacon of the struggle for Black freedom and women’s rights, be tarnished by those who have nothing but contempt for it.

One particularly egregious insult came immediately after Franklin’s death, when Fox News mistakenly used a picture of singer Patti LaBelle to illustrate a tribute to Franklin.

But perhaps the worst of all came from Donald Trump. The “pussy-grabber” and serial sexual harasser, the man who still seems to think there are “good people” among the racists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville last year, declared on Twitter that Franklin’s legacy will “thrive and inspire many generations to come.”

Then he claimed that Franklin “worked” for him on “numerous occasions” — as though she was his housekeeper. (In reality, Franklin reportedly refused to perform at Trump’s inauguration.)

It’s a sickening insult for a racist misogynist like Trump to even utter Franklin’s name. Trump is devoid of soul — musically, yes, but also as a human being.

Aretha Franklin’s legacy will never be what people like Trump try to make of it. It’s what Franklin’s publicist Bob Rolontz said: “‘Soul’ was Aretha. Aretha came, and Aretha conquered.”

Further Reading

From the archives