For a nation that fought a bloody war of independence to toss the notion of royalty onto the trash heap of history, we sure do love royals.
Consider our British friends: Most of the Brits I know regard their royal family as inbred, blood-engorged ticks sucking on their necks, while we here fawn over the Windsors and every bauble of their lives.
Here in the land where everyone is created equal, we dub the fuck out of everyone. No one ever says you’re the CEO of Soul or the President of Poon. You get the Mattress King selling you a king mattress, the King of Pop, the King of Beers, the Queen of Mean, the Crown Prince of Comedy and a whole Duck Dynasty.
And then there’s Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. It’s an apt title in terms of her having been at the unrivaled summit of her craft. But it also has things upside-down. She wasn’t born with a crown on her head; she was a product of America, creating herself from virtually nothing to become one of the signal talents of the past century through hard work, honed talent, a giving spirit and fearless soulfulness.
Rather than call Aretha the Queen of Soul, it would be far more fitting for a royal—were there ever one so deserving—to be dubbed the Aretha of Queens.
In recent decades, one has grown accustomed to seeing Aretha (who died on Aug. 16 of pancreatic cancer) bedecked in jewels and furs, making a regal entrance into any hall she graced, but it was not always so. She was born in a shack in segregated Memphis, Tennessee, in 1942. Even then, during the privations of World War II, white Tennesseans found the time that year to lynch some 220 of their black neighbors. Virtually none of those atrocities was ever prosecuted. Rather, crowds would gather to see the black bodies hanging from the trees, and photo post cards were sold. As Jesse Jackson said of her childhood, “She was born in the midst of oppression. No one was saying Black Lives Matter then.”
Understandably, when Aretha was 2, her preacher father moved the family north—where the racism was less overt—eventually settling in Detroit in 1946. There, the Reverend C.L. Franklin became a respected gospel orator, and he soon became a national voice, heard on radio and records. Aretha traveled the country with him, singing and playing piano from the age of 12. She cut her first album of gospel music when she was 14.
C.L. involved himself in the civil-rights movement, as did his daughter. In 1958, Aretha toured with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A decade later, she sang at his funeral, after he was felled by a white assassin. In between those times, when Dr. King’s organization was going bankrupt, she did an 11-city tour with Harry Belafonte to raise funds to keep King solvent.
By then, Aretha had become Aretha. In 1960, she’d been signed to Columbia records by John Hammond, whose nose for talent also led to the discovery of Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Stevie Ray Vaughan and a host of others. Unfortunately, the staid label didn’t know what to do with Aretha and largely hid her talent under a bushel of soft jazz arrangements.
In 1966, she was signed by Atlantic, a dominant label in R&B and soul music since the 1950s. In 1967, producer Jerry Wexler sent her to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record in a funkier setting.
Musicians who played on those sessions recalled her as being young and shy but utterly assured of where she wanted her music to go. Her voice and piano playing would dictate the feel, and they were off. Musician/songwriter Spooner Oldham told Entertainment Tonight, “It was just free-flowing. The three albums I played on, she never said to play this or do that. I don’t know what homework she did beforehand. I just know she sang [a song] once or twice and was done.”
And so began decades of hits, ones that from the outset stood apart from everything else, even though the charts already had an abundance of soul music. Consider her singles from 1967 alone: “Respect,” “I Never Loved a Man the Way I love You,” “Do Right Woman—Do Right Man,” “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools.” Whether she wrote the song, had it penned for her or borrowed it from another artist, it became entirely hers.
The year 1967 was also big for Otis Redding, but when he sang his “Respect” at the Monterey Pop Festival, he introduced it by declaring admiringly, “That girl, she just TOOK this song.”
No matter how set in stone a song might be, such as Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Aretha would shatter the masonry and make it her own in ways unimagined by the composer. She really deserved a songwriting credit on everything she touched, having added so much emotion and depth of meaning in her interpretation.
It’s no surprise that Carole King was suffused with joy when Aretha came onstage to sing King’s “A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, while President Barack Obama sat next to her, wiping tears from his eyes. It’s even less of a surprise that Aretha helped to make that song into an emotional touchstone for an untold number of women around the world.
Two years ago, Obama said this in a New Yorker profile on Aretha: “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock & roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears—the same way that Ray Charles’s version of ‘America the Beautiful’ will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed—because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.”
He and Michelle Obama struck a similar note in a statement they issued on Aretha’s passing, saying, in part, “Every time she sang, we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine. Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade—our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”
Aretha had sung at Obama’s inauguration. She rather pointedly did not at Donald Trump’s. If there is an antithesis of soul, it is embodied in that petty, vindictive man. His comment of Aretha’s death was typical, in that it was all about him. Along with a boilerplate sentence or two on her talent, he said she was “a person I knew well,” meaning they were in the same frame of a photograph a couple of times, and “She worked for me on numerous occasions,” meaning she’d done two or three gigs on Trump properties. That’s tantamount to Jack Kent Cooke saying Mick Jagger worked for him because the Stones had played the Forum. But let’s leave Trump for another day.
Is there such a thing as the human soul? I suspect so, and Aretha would be Exhibit A. Does the soul live on after us? I’m inclined to think so. In every observable manifestation of the physical world, energy doesn’t just disappear: It is transferred, transformed; it moves on. Aretha’s energy, passion, dynamism and creativity are imprinted on millions and millions of lives she left here, with so much left over that I expect she’s radiating through the universe as we speak.