As far as monikers go, ‘Lady Soul’ may well have proved a heavy load to bear for many artists. Yet Aretha Franklin, who has died at the age of 76, became the unimpeachable incumbent, the absolute personification of the genre of music that flowered from black America and grew around the whole world.
Franklin, born in Memphis, Tennessee, was the daughter of a Baptist preacher and grew up singing in church. She had credentials others could only dream of and she produced an extensive and hugely rich body of work. Following in the footsteps of one of her sources of inspiration, Ray Charles, she had a great ability to recast the ecstatic, electric energy of gospel in one secular setting.
What made her a great singer
The albums she cut for Atlantic between the mid ‘60s and late ‘70s included such gems as “Spirit In The Dark” and “Dr. Feelgood”. Franklin’s ability to phrase inventively, nuance her timbre and choose exactly the right moment to ratchet up her attack made memorable performances of “Chain Of Fools”, “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You”, “Natural Woman” and “Spanish Harlem”.
In fact, too much emphasis is often put on the power of Franklin’s voice, however her careful handling of it, her use of understatement as well as emphasis, her restraint as well as flourishes, are the real reasons why her performances were so artistically accomplished and deeply affecting.
On any given song she fulfills the ideal of voice-as-instrument by bringing enormous variety to note length, volume and texture, as can be heard on the quite heart-stopping coda of “Say A Little Prayer”, where her use of sotto voce, the tantalizingly whispered wish for the safekeeping of a loved one, is cast as a remarkable point of contrast with the grand eruptions of intensity that precede it.
Then again, the rhythmic flurries that boost other songs, none more so than the syllabic breakdown on “Respect” — “R-E-S-P-E-C-T / Find out what it means to me” — reflect Franklin’s understanding of how a burst of energy in a verse could make the arrangement of a three-minute, radio-friendly song a masterpiece in miniature.
From gospel to jazz to soul: the journey of a legend
Much of this artistry can be traced back to her first incarnation as a jazz singer in the early ‘60s, when she proved to be a formidable interpreter of standards such as “God Bless The Child”, “Skylark” and “Misty”. But Columbia Records, her label at the time, didn’t really understand that Franklin could be one of the defining figures of the forthcoming soul music revolution, and it was only when she signed to Atlantic, under the aegis of producer Jerry Wexler, that her potential was duly fulfilled.
Electric rather than acoustic instruments proved to be the most appropriate backdrop for Franklin’s voice, and the use of harder backbeats and funkier grooves highlighted the modernity of her singing, even though it was so steeped in tradition. This really came into its own on a piece such as the pulsating “Rock Steady”, with its ricochet percussion supplied by Dr. John, and her collaborations with the legendary house bands from Muscle Shoals and Atlantic, helmed by the great saxophonist and arranger King Curtis, rank among some of the key unions in the entire history of popular music.
Having said that, Franklin never completely discarded her gospel roots, and the brilliant live album Amazing Grace became one of the biggest sellers of her career.
A heroine to the struggling
As she racked up 75 million album sales and countless chart topping singles, Franklin never forgot that the church was a kind of second home for her, and it could be argued that the traumas she experienced at various points in her life, from teenage pregnancy to broken marriages to health problems, simply strengthened rather than weakened her sense of spirituality.
The close ties that her father had with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement formed another pillar of faith that also decisively framed her life. Franklin did not just turn into an icon for the oppressed and downtrodden, the victims of discrimination on the grounds of race and gender; she lived through the same traumas as a lot of her adoring fans, and was able to sublimate the pain through that extraordinary voice of hers.
When she sang Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black”, she was articulating a truth about her own life as much as she was that of others, and one could contend that Simone, whether she realized it or not, actually wrote the song [with Weldon Irvine] for Franklin, or at least for Franklin to really make it the majestic anthem of fulfillment that it was always intended to be. These moments were tremendously empowering for people of colour the world over.
Voice of and for the people
Franklin became the lorded ‘soul sister’ in many a black household because of her blend of every woman charm and god-given talent. No greater tribute to her came than in the shape of the name check she received from George Clinton on Parliament’s provocative “Chocolate City”, in which she is anointed “The First Lady” at that blessed moment when the White House finally turns black amid the vanilla suburbs.
Her performances for presidents such as Barack Obama are rightly held up as watershed moments in her own life, but the fact of the matter is that Franklin gained the ultimate constituency: the common people.
Franklin continued to record up until last year, but her work was relatively inconsistent. One of her last musical golden periods was actually the early ‘80s, when she was produced by Luther Vandross and Marcus Miller. Two fine albums, Jump To It and Get It Right, underlined her place as a strong black woman deserving of her “propers” in a world still marked by inequality.
Watch Aretha Franklin – Live in Paris 1977 on Qwest TV