Paul McCartney said it best: Aretha Franklin was not just the Queen of Soul, she was “the Queen of our souls.”
To work with her, the Aretha I knew in several of her last performing years was still in righteous form, undimmed in voice if physically frail. She had suffered, was suffering, and suffered neither fools nor some others gladly.
A diva’s diva, she played by no man’s rules. She could drive you to distraction, be tempestuous and quixotic, and pen midnight emails in intermittent all-caps that could put you in mind of the Unabomber. But she also worked through pain, fatigue and chills. Not only had she earned the right to do things her way, she was an indomitable role model in a society and at a time when women, and African American women even more so, were in sore need of proper respect.
It was clear that she had been ill, but it went against her character to admit it. Her skin was clammy, she was perpetually cold, the fur jacket never came off. On a sweltering day in Washington, she had a space heater brought in, she made the White House turn off the air conditioning, no matter that the president had to fan his face with the evening’s playbill. It was like church, he said, perspiring but smiling. After all, she was the Queen.
Born in Memphis shortly after we entered World War II, Aretha never knew a stable two-parent home. Her mother, Barbara, was a gospel singer and piano player who split when Aretha was six, leaving her pastor father C.L. Franklin to raise her alone. They had moved to Detroit in 1946, and it was there that Aretha joined the choir and, before the age of 10, taught herself to play the piano, just as her mother had done. She never learned to read music, and she didn’t become a songwriter. Starting at C.L.’s New Bethel Baptist Church, once Aretha performed a song, she owned it. Of such, careers are made.
Aretha tried to live her life on the square, feign happiness and all that jive, but the truth was different. The area around the church in Detroit was no easy street, yet it seemed to explode with music as a ticket out for a group of precocious Motowners.
Diana Ross lived nearby, pairing looks with vocal chords. Smokey Robinson was a neighborhood prodigy, penning lyrics about things only an adult would know. Aretha didn’t echo their gifts; instead, she smashed together musical forms with a hunger and a fury all her own. Gospel, jazz, blues, soul, R&B and rock and roll: there were no boundaries for Aretha.
John Hammond, who had signed Billie Holiday, put Aretha in a studio at Columbia Records in 1960, when she was just 18. But the label didn’t know what to do with this line crosser, and her first big hit, the one that defined her career, was on Atlantic Records -- Otis Redding’s “Respect.” Aretha recorded it on Valentine’s Day in 1967. It rocketed to the top of the charts. Her signature song forever.
Over the last couple of weeks, you’ve heard it all: the 100 singles on the Billboard charts, the 18 Grammy Awards and the cherry on top for Lifetime Achievement, the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and on and on. In 2007, she told The New York Times her father had said she “would sing for kings and queens,” and she added “…and presidents.” Lo and behold, Carter, Clinton and Obama all proved the prediction, and one year after “Respect” made her world famous she sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.
C.L. was right: kings and queens and presidents indeed.
Yet it is not only as a singer that we miss her so, that a void has been torn open in the universe. This force of nature gave us a model of power and passion that helped fuel the women’s movement. The deadly crab of cancer did not silence this woman of the church, whose voice will still be heard when we are gone.
By the time I knew her, she had soldiered on long after she ceased to fly due to a scary flight she’d had; long after her beloved father was shot in the head in a home robbery and spent five years in a coma before leaving her; long after her brother Cecil ceased managing her only in his dying; long after a first marriage to an abusive alcoholic and a second marriage that didn’t stick. It never came easy -- not early, not later.
The Queen is dead, long live the Queen. Ring the bells. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Amen.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.