- 10 Sep 18
Music lost one of its greatest ever vocalists and performers when Aretha Franklin joined the choir in the great beyond. Pat Carty pays tribute to a remarkable career, which encompassed everything from pop classics to iconic soul music that reflected the turbulence of her times.
While Aretha Franklin only really came into her own musically after she signed with Atlantic records in 1966, she had already done more than her share of living. Her parents separated when she was six, her mother passed away when she was nine, and by the time she was fourteen she already had two children of her own. She was no stranger to fame either, her father, C.L. Franklin, known as the man with the million-dollar voice, travelled the country getting well paid for his sermons. His popularity meant the Franklin house in Detroit - Aretha was born in Memphis – welcomed visitors like Sam Cooke and Martin Luther King, Jr. Her father took her performing on the road too, and secured the release of her first album when Franklin was still only fourteen. That’s enough for anyone, but she was only getting started.
The early sixties were spent on Columbia Records but those records didn’t take off so, frustrated at her lack of direction, she decided not to renew her contract. She went with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records, who quickly packed her off to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The story goes that Wexler asked Franklin to sit at the piano and sing him a blues song. As soon as he heard ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You)’, he knew he had a hit. It’s all there in that opening – “You’re a no-good heartbreaker, you’re a liar and a cheat” – a voice of pure soul singing the low-down blues. Flip over the single and drop the needle on the equally seismic ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ – “they say that it’s a man’s world but you can’t prove that by me”. With the greatest respect to the girl groups of Motown, this is the sound of a woman, telling you how it’s going to be - don’t you even think about giving her any shit.
She mercilessly commandeered ‘Respect’ from the great Otis Redding, transforming it into an anthem of female empowerment, and a call to arms for the civil right movement. She was demanding respect rather than asking for it, refusing to take no for an answer. These songs - she also walks away with Ray Charles’ ‘Drown In My Own Tears’ and gets down and dirty on ‘Save Me’ - make the I Never Loved A Man album play like a greatest hits. Wexler’s genius was to let Aretha do her own thing, drawing from her gospel background and combining it with her unique blues – soul music in other words.
Lady Soul, from 1968, is nearly as good again – she’s hopelessly in love with another bollocks on ‘Chain Of Fools’, she’s back in church for Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’, and there’s another anthem in ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’. Fast forward to 2015, to the Kennedy Centre where Carole King, who co-wrote the song specially for Aretha, is being honoured. Aretha walks on stage in a full-length fur coat and begins the song at the piano, the camera catches Obama already wiping away a tear. Aretha moves to centre-stage, allowing the coat to fall to the floor as her vocal heads for the stratosphere. If you’re not moved by this performance - King looks like she's having a proper melt down - then there really is no hope for you.
The highlights of her Atlantic years are many – ‘The House That Jack Built’, ‘The Weight’ (with a little help from Duane Allman), ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, and ‘With Everything I Feel In Me’ to name but a few. She could take a song from Smokey Robinson (‘Tracks Of My Tears’) or Elton John (‘Border Song’) and instantly make it her own. Her recording of ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ beats out the iconic original, thanks to Aretha’s unique piano playing, self taught at an early age, and that matchless voice. If you can, get your hands on the Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings box, which provides a solid overview. Once you've absorbed that, seek out Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul as a companion piece. You'll be glad you did.
The church was always there, you can hear it in ‘Spirit In The Dark’ with Ray Charles from the Aretha Live At Fillmore West album, so Amazing Grace, released in 1972, was a natural step. A live album recorded at the New Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, it would go on to be the best seller of Franklin’s career, and it might just be the purest expression of what she’s all about. The voice taking comfort in her faith, offering herself up to a higher power. This is not merely gospel music, it is the sound a human soul makes to ease the pain of living. You don’t need to have any interest in Jesus or the Lord to be healed by this remarkable record.
To take this a bit further, Aretha could move you no matter what she sang. Luciano Pavarotti was due to receive an honour at the 1998 Grammys, and perform, but he had to drop out under doctor’s orders. At literally the last minute, Aretha Franklin stepped in. Her performance of ‘Nessun Dorma’ – one minute she’s singing from her boots, the next her voice is higher than the sky – proves the old adage that the human voice is the most expressive of all instruments, and Aretha was blessed with the most beautiful one you’ve ever heard.
After a brief commercial slump, Aretha had another R&B #1 with 'Something He Can Feel' from 1976's very-much-worth hearing Sparkle soundtrack album, composed and produced by Curtis Mayfield, but this would be her last decent hit on Atlantic, before her move to Arista as the new decade dawned. This coincided with her acclaimed turn as a waitress in the 1980 cult-comedy-musical, The Blues Brothers, who warns the late, great Matt "Guitar" Murphy to think long and hard about the consequences of his actions, although the bounder heads off on the road nevertheless.
Some of those eighties albums have aged less than well, although there were successes. 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, a million seller, featured the Grammy winning ‘Freeway Of Love’, and another anthem in ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’, her duet with Annie Lennox. She sang rings around George Michael, no slouch in the chanting department himself, on the following year’s Aretha for her first pop number one since ‘Respect’, ‘I Knew you Were Waiting For Me’. One track that might have caught listeners by surprise is her arse kicking cover of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, produced by Keith Richards himself, who apparently only agreed to do it as long as the Queen played the piano. Aretha’s voice howls out those apocalyptic lyrics, making this a strong contender for the best ever Stones cover.
She sat out most of the nineties, although she was back in the charts with the Lauryn Hill produced ‘A Rose is Still A Rose’ in ‘98. The last recording of note was in 2014, her take on Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep’. She performed it on the David Letterman show, merging it into ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, proving that while her health may have been starting to go, her talent was not.
Franklin had been having medical problems on and off for a few years before it was announced on August 13 that she was gravely ill, and she died at home, from advanced pancreatic cancer, just a few days later. Obama said on her passing that “In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it.” It was a voice which offered comfort and joy to any human soul willing to hear it. God’s own singer of songs is going home. The Queen is dead, long live the Queen.