Aretha Franklin: a retrospective

Music

Image credit: Billboard Magazine 1968. Description: a photo of Aretha Franklin in 1968.

On the 16th August the world lost a powerful figure of modern music. Called ‘The Queen of Soul’ by many, some of the world’s most famous musicians have paid tribute to Aretha Franklin’s work and her influence on music history.

Franklin’s musical career began as a child singing gospel hymns at New Bethel Baptist
Church, Detroit, where she recorded her first single “Never Grow Old” at just fourteen years old. This slow-paced spiritual, accompanied only by a subtle, sparse piano part opens up space for the young singer to showcase the might of her mezzo-soprano voice. Franklin’s extraordinary talents were recognised even at this early age by some of the biggest names in music at the time. The legendary music producer Quincy Jones was reportedly told by Dinah Washington, who became one of Franklin’s central musical inspirations, that Aretha was “the next one”. Aretha’s vocal versatility indeed proved to be ‘the next one’, acting as an honourable, yet innovative, continuation of Washington’s own musical legacy.

…much like her first recordings, the accompaniment on this song is subtle enough to bring out Aretha’s voice to the maximum.

As her musical success steadily grew with the release of subsequent demos, Franklin turned to legendary choreographer Cholly Atkins for support in developing a captivating, powerful stage presence for her pop performances. Indeed, Atkins was responsible for the choreography of the most famous Motown acts of the era, including The Supremes, The Temptations and The Four Tops. His innovative dance style, which he called “vocal choreography”, played an important role in Aretha’s future showmanship. Her first single to reach the top ten in the Hot Rhythm & Blues Sellers Chart was a slow, soft blues melody “Today I Sing the Blues” in which, much like her first recordings, the accompaniment on this song is subtle enough to bring out Aretha’s voice to the maximum. The crisp, clear vocal track brings to it a raw, intimate quality as every little tremble of her voice, every subtle change, can be heard.

1961 marked the starting point of Aretha Franklin’s secular career with the release of the album Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo. The sheer musical diversity of this album, which includes tracks ranging from rhythm and blues to doo-wop, brilliantly captures the artist’s colourful musical complexity. It was this album that brought Franklin international recognition, specifically through the song “Rock-a-bye your baby with a Dixie Melody”, which reached the top 40 in the Australian and Canadian charts.

However, it was “Respect” which turned Aretha Franklin into a cultural icon. A cover of Otis Redding’s 1965 hit, Franklin’s version turned the plea of a hardworking man demanding “respect” from his wife, even if this respect is half-hearted (“​You can do me wrong honey, while I’m gone”), into a demand for respect from the powerful voice of a woman who knows her value: she “ain’t gonna do you wrong”, and therefore expects the respect she knows she deserves. It was this bold, daring and confident song that grew to be an anthem for both the civil rights and feminist movements.

Numerous artists have been influenced by her music, including Annie Lennox, Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys.

Franklin continued to deliver a stunning range of performances for the following four decades. From her appearance in the 1980 cult film The Blues Brothers to her performance at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Franklin was ever-present in American cultural life. However, perhaps the most striking performance of all during her later years was at the 1998 Grammy Awards. The tenor Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to perform his signature aria “Nessun Dorma” that evening but had fallen too ill to perform. Franklin stepped in at the last minute and delivered a stunning rendition of Puccini’s aria, further demonstrating her multifaceted vocal talent.

By the end of her life, Franklin had won an array of prestigious awards, including two Grammys and being ranked as “the best singer of all time” by Rolling Stone Magazine. Numerous artists have been influenced by her music, including Annie Lennox, Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys. The Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski famously said “love the art in yourself, and not yourself in the art”, and for me this is the essence of Aretha Franklin’s legacy. The art of the music is always placed before herself and she delivered her performances with nothing but sincere passion. Her only tool was her voice, the authenticity and power of which will remain cherished far beyond her lifetime.