Aretha Franklin passes away aged 76: For over six decades, she reigned as the Queen of Soul

Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri

August 16, 2018 20:03:20 IST

Your mouth says “Aretha”, your mind silently, involuntarily says “Franklin” soon after. That’s the power of Aretha Franklin. She’s been a name, no doubt, but she’s really been much more than that. Deeply etched into our consciousness for more than six decades, Aretha Franklin wasn’t just the Queen of Soul; she was the voice of ours. With her demise, we’ve lost the gold standard of great singing.

When news first came in of her severely critical condition — as is the wont with news media the world over — there has been a buzz to keep tributes and obituaries ready. Under normal (for the media, but abnormal for the rest of the world) circumstances, one starts to collate information on the person who’s knocking on heaven’s door, gives a structure to their articles, and sometimes even has a headline in place. This process is almost mechanical and requires disengagement from emotions to keep an eye on a deadline that could be advanced in an instance.

How, though, does one prep for Aretha without going through the dossier of one’s own life? How do you start making notes when you’re busy reliving that heartbreak she nursed you through, that injustice she vocalised for you, or that enduring romance of yours she lent her voice to? How do you prepare for this legend’s death without confronting your neatly shoe-boxed personal milestones and failures? As someone with an incredible repertoire of originals, she has to her credit some phenomenal covers that make you forget who sang them in the first place. She took their songs and made them her own.

And just like that, her songs took our pain and made them their own.

The mezzo-soprano with a four-octave range, began her singing career as a gospel singer, inspired to do so by her minister father CL Franklin. Her father played a significant role in her career, particularly after separating from Aretha’s mother, as the fledgling singer went on to live with him. Her mum died just short of Aretha’s 10th birthday, and it was around then that young singer started to teach herself to play the piano solely by ear. Four years later, she embarked on the gospel caravan tours undertaken by her father to perform at various churches. By this time, he was already managing her nascent career.

With Aretha Franklin's demise, we’ve lost the gold standard of great singing. REUTERS

With Aretha Franklin's demise, we’ve lost the gold standard of great singing. REUTERS

Her first album Songs of Faith was released in 1956, but it wasn’t until her secular debut Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo with Columbia Records that she reached the mainstream Billboard charts. Her foray with Columbia took the gospel singer away from her church roots and made her explore genres such as jazz, blues, doo-wop and R&B. With her experimentation across the next two albums, Aretha began to develop her pop persona. Her six-year stint with Columbia saw her release songs such as 'Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with Dixie Melody', 'Operation Heartbreak', and 'You Made Me Love You'.

Her move to Atlantic Records established Aretha as a trailblazing singer. With 'I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)' topping Billboard’s R&B chart, she also made it to the Top 10 of Billboard Hot 100. Her energetic cover of Otis Redding’s 'Respect' in April 1967 made history. It topped both of Billboard’s R&B and pop charts, making it her signature song. That it went on to form the soundtrack of civil rights and feminist movements, cemented her voice as the one of people’s power. How ironic is it that when Redding originally sang the song, he was actually demanding that a woman respect a man who comes home from work. Franklin, who clearly made this song her own, made it amply clear with the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” section, that the song was about a woman demanding equality. Word has it that at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, Redding half-jokingly said, “This is a song that a girl took away from me, a good friend of mine. This girl she just took this song. But I’m going to do it anyway.”

In the concerts to come, Redding was far more appreciative for Franklin’s musical ingenuity. It was a particular trait that resonates through most of her career. Her ability to intelligently interpret the music of her contemporaries across six decades has been no mean feat. With a powerful voice to carry her renditions through the tests of time, Franklin has covered the works of Dionne Warwick and Otis Redding to the Rolling Stones and Adele. A great original voice that never shied away from tipping her hat at her ever-changing contemporaries. Her delicious cover of 'I Say A Little Prayer' just a year after Warwick released her original remains the most widely heard version of the song, with many mistaking it to be a Franklin original. Her quickly expanding success also saw her record hit songs such as 'Spanish Harlem', 'Rock Steady', 'Day Dreaming' and 'Something He Can Feel'.

Her career, while consistently dotted with hits and major successes, has been a steady stream of milestones. She’s won 18 Grammys and is considered one of the best-selling artists of all time. She was the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is widely considered among the greatest singers of all time.

Personally, Aretha hasn’t been without her share of issues. Married twice, with two out of four children being born before she turned 15, she had her family rallying around to raise her young kids as she went on to make a career for herself. Her first marriage ended in a tumultuous divorce, the outcome of domestic violence amongst other issues. A good part of her career has run parallel to her weight and alcoholism problems. Aunt to legendary singer Whitney Houston, Franklin has been most vocal about her personal battles, though increasingly guarded about her subsequent health issues. “Falling out of love is like losing weight. It's a lot easier putting it on than taking it off,” she once said.

And just like that, so effortlessly, she spoke through her interviews and her music, what women the world over have been wanting to articulate. She’s the reason a lot of women have wanted to be singers: Whitney Houston, Annie Lennox, Alicia Keys, among others. Every college competition has had some female vocalist bring to life or massacre (perspective is everything) an Aretha song. There’s been confidence in her voice that stems not just from her talent but from her attitude. She’s been strong and she’s been vulnerable; she’s been everything you wanted yourself to be. Her gospel roots gave her vocal pipes the perfect grounding. A genre that unwittingly demands honesty in lifestyle as in technique, Aretha was genuine even in the face of difficulties.

By the time she completed a decade in her music career, Aretha was already anointed the Queen of Soul. She went on to essay that role for a good 50 more years. What else can you say to a life so extraordinary? R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Updated Date: Aug 19, 2018 09:44 AM