BY JONATHAN WINGATE
When Aretha Franklin walked onstage at the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2015, the air was fizzing with excitement before she had even opened her mouth to sing. Wearing an ankle-length mink coat over a pink and gold brocade dress, she placed her handbag on the lid, sat down at the piano and punched out a few gospel chords before slipping into the opening lines of You Make Me Feel Like (A Natural Woman), a song Carole King, the evening’s honoree, and her then-partner, Gerry Goffin, had written for her in 1967. In the video of this show-stopping tribute, the camera pans to President Obama, holding his head in his hands, wiping tears from his eyes, then to King, who is overcome with joy.
Franklin’s power and passion seemed undimmed by the passage of time. As her emotional performance reached its finale, the audience went wild as she stood up from the piano, raised her hands towards the heavens and dropped her coat to the floor – an old gospel trick she had often seen employed by soloists at the end of a stirring spiritual.
“American history wells up when Aretha sings,” said Obama. “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock’n’roll – the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. When she sits down at a piano and sings A Natural Woman, she can move me to tears. What other artist had that kind of impact? Dylan. Maybe Stevie, Ray Charles. The jazz giants like Armstrong. But it’s a short list.”
Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis in 1942. Her father, Rev Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, was a charismatic Baptist preacher, who became famous throughout black America for his fiery sermons, spreading his message via records, radio broadcasts and his own travelling revival show, whilst her mother, Barbara, was a singer and choir mistress in her husband’s church. Aretha and her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, were infants when their father became minister of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where smelling salts were always kept on hand to revive worshippers who were overcome by the spirit.
C. L. Franklin attracted an array of illustrious friends that included Martin Luther King Jr, Duke Ellington, Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson. When their mother passed away, the girls were supervised in the Reverend’s comfortable home by their paternal grandmother, Rachel – ‘Big Mama’ – and a succession of housekeepers.
As a teenager, with friends and neighbours including Berry Gordy Jr, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, Franklin fell in love with R&B music. Rejecting formal piano lessons, she learned to play by ear. Having given up school education at the age of 16 after the birth of her second child, she released her debut album, Songs Of Faith, which attracted the attention of both Cooke and Gordy, who encouraged her to move into secular music when she cut her first demo in New York.
She was immediately signed by Columbia Records’ legendary producer and A&R man, John Hammond Jr – who helped launch the careers of everyone from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan – yet the label never seemed to know what to do with Franklin, whose early albums are a hotchpotch of pop, jazz standards and show tunes.
At the end of 1966, six years after signing with Columbia, Franklin jumped ship to Atlantic Records, a company which was much more in tune with what black audiences wanted to hear. The company’s head honcho was producer Jerry Wexler, who had been keeping an eye on her career from the start.
His plan was simply to take Franklin back to her gospel roots by booking her into Rick Hall’s tiny Fame Studios, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. She was looking for what she described as a “greasy sound”, although she was somewhat taken aback when she discovered that Hall had hired a bunch of local white musicians.
The whole session ended in disaster, when Ted White, Franklin’s husband and manager, got into a drunken row with one of the horn players, who he thought had been flirting with his wife. Wexler told Hall that he would destroy his career and make sure no major artist ever worked with him again.
Eventually, Franklin and the original Muscle Shoals musicians reconvened to Atlantic Recording Studios in New York and finished I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You), the first in an astonishing run of timeless singles that included Respect, Chain Of Fools, and I Say A Little Prayer, unforgettable songs that left an indelible mark on the musical landscape. At the peak of her powers, between 1967 and 1972, nobody could touch Aretha Franklin.
She won 18 Grammys and sold 75 million records over the course of her illustrious career, yet whatever style she was singing, gospel remained the main ingredient in her musical melting pot. Where Mahalia Jackson sang to the converted, Franklin took her own unmistakable brand of gospel into the charts for everyone to hear.
She could sing with raw power or gentle vulnerability, whether she was addressing her God or an unfaithful lover. With her versatile voice, Franklin could turn on a dime, seamlessly switching between uplifting gospel, raucous R&B and soothing soul, sometimes all within the space of a single three-minute song.
At the 1998 Grammy Awards, she stepped in at the last minute for her friend Luciano Pavarotti, who was too ill to perform. He had been scheduled to sing Nessun Dorma, an aria from Puccini’s Turendot that was written specifically for an operatic tenor, not a mezzo-soprano like Franklin, yet she pulled the whole thing off perfectly after hearing a rehearsal recording 20 minutes before she went on stage.
“Aretha could sing anything from opera to blues and everything in between,” explains Smokey Robinson. “Jazz, rock, whatever it was, Aretha could sing the phone book.”
She was also a criminally underrated piano player as well as a brilliant producer and arranger, who could take an iconic song like Otis Redding’s Respect or Dionne Warwick’s I Say A Little Prayer and make it her own. After Franklin recorded her version of Respect in 1967, Redding immediately dropped it from his repertoire.
On a purely musical level, Franklin’s four-octave range marked her out from most of her peers, yet ultimately, it was her extraordinary ability to convey pure emotion when she sang that made her a star and earned her the title ‘The Queen Of Soul.’ Her voice is so pure and so true, it can reduce you to tears or send a shiver down your spine.
“If I can wrap myself up in that song – and when that song gets to be a part of me and affects me emotionally – then the emotions that I go through, chances are I’ll be able to communicate to you,” she once explained. “Make the people out there become a part of the life of this song that you’re singing about. That’s soul when you can do that.”