A preacher’s daughter, Aretha Franklin sang the “devil’s music” with a taut abandon; with a voice that sounded like it boomed out of the chest of God. She was a genius. Mellifluous at turns and ambitious, doting, and immaculate in equal measure. That is to say that she was a whole damn human being at a time when being Black and homo-sapien was all but outlawed. When being that talented was as much a curse as a touch of the window-stained divine. And she came out of a crop of Black genius at that time. Found everywhere and doing everything. Ray Charles and James Brown and Little Richard hit stages all across the country, changing the face of music in the 50s and 60s as well as the stilted hips of a nation all at once. But even among those greats, it was clear Aretha was different. Special. Singular. Whatever she made was a unique constellation of elements gobbled up by the force of the human soul and held together with a spark that would change history.
In 1960, she was blowing the doors off New Bethel Baptist Church in her hometown Detroit. Her father, the popular minister and singer C.L. Franklin, honed her prodigious abilities in and around gospel music. But the blues were in the budding woman’s bones and by 1967 she was signed to Atlantic Records after a cold stint at Columbia. John Hammond and her then manager Ted White wanted to turn her into another Billie Holiday there. Had her belting jazz and show tunes like the woman’s otherworldly talent didn’t demand the sound of the day. But now with Atlantic Records and at a small studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a spectrum of backing musicians baptized in the rivers of melody, she recorded “I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way That I Love You”. It’s where Franklin, in a documentary about the studio, would say, “Coming to Muscle Shoals was the turning point in my career”. And where her husband at the time, White—the song hitting a bit too close to home—started a brawl with the manager of the studio after the recording. Thit is the same man the great Bettye LaVette would call “a gentleman pimp”. He allegedly abused Franklin, leaving her with bruises while her prodigiousness made hits.
That recording would shape the iconic Franklin’s sound as she would bring the world “Dr. Feelgood”, “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man”, and “Respect” on the same 1967 record. The change from Hammond at Columbia to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic was just what the doctor ordered, it seems, and Franklin was off-and-running. In one sizzling year, she’d release “Chain Of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in addition to the above. Now, “Chain Of Fools” was famously created for Otis Redding, but Wexler decided to play the song with Franklin after Don Covay had written it years earlier. The record is now iconic. Though not as much as “Respect”, which was still burning up the charts at the time and will be a feminist anthem until the world ends. Of course “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”—co-written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin— and songs like “Baby I Love You” cemented that run. That’s just the 60s. The 70s featured classic, genre-turning records like Young, Gifted, and Black, Spirit In The Dark, and her double-platinum selling gospel album Amazing Grace. By the end of the 70s, though, her father’s death and Wexler’s leaving prompted her to quit Atlantic. She’d soon sign to Clive Davis’s Arista Records where she’d go on to have commercial success with albums like Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and Aretha.
We can sit here and talk about her hits all day, but Franklin doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her song creating abilities. She isn’t just a voice. She played a master’s piano. Imagine her, beset with sweat at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, glowing in front of those keys like a firefly. That blazing, pulsating flame is what led to her litany of hits. Even in the late 70s when her Quincy Jones produced record Hey Now Hey wouldn’t reach the heights of her previous efforts, she was still a creator; still more than a person. She was Aretha Franklin, the Queen of God damned soul. And some people would say she knew it, too, and that was a problem. That Franklin put a capital D in Diva. But I’d like to remind all of us that we don’t know that woman or what she went through. We don’t know what her mother all but abandoning her or her father’s notorious skirt chasing did to her. And we sure don’t know what having two babies at 14 with a father that’s a preacher will do to a person.
What we do have are her records, her enormous legacy, and her talent. We do have the fact that she articulated what it meant to be young, gifted, and Black. In this era, we seem to be obsessed with public cleanliness, with instability, with power. Sure, they were obsessed with it then too, but Aretha comes out of a tradition that hid its bumps so the white world wouldn’t run off and murder you. Things were different then. So Aretha could be prickly. In 1980, she did a 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley wherein he touched on the sexuality in her songs, thinking it was cool. “Lust”, he said. “A … good feeling”. Aretha set him straight: “You got me mixed up with somebody else, Ed”, she said. So we know. Know about her feud with Dionne Warwick. Know about what we’ve been allowed to know. But genius is dark and it’s greedy. Miles Davis would say of how greedy Coltrane was, “I suppose geniuses are like that”. Well, Franklin had the juice, what more can you say?
In an interview with the Washington Post in 2012, she was asked what she wants people to know about her beneath the music. She responded in kind. “Well, I think people already know. I’ve been around long enough for people to know who I am and what my contributions are. They know me as more than just an artist. I think they know me as a woman, as well.” She wasn’t interested, in her later life, in playing by anybody else’s rules but hers because baby if we didn’t know her by now then we were stuck. That’s what it was. My favorite quote on Franklin, though, is by Ray Charles. He said she was, “One of the greatest I’ve ever heard [of] anytime”. Some 50-60 years later that remains true.