By Derek Walker
You are huge when people know you by one name only. Like Bowie and Prince, the prized pair that we lost in 2016, Aretha Franklin was one such singer. The name ‘Aretha’ only meant one person – and often, when the name was expanded, it was to ‘Aretha, Queen of Soul’.
When she died last week, the level of tributes confirmed her importance, not least when Barack Obama, reminding us what a dignified presidential tweet actually looks like, said: “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.”
But the Franklin part of her name is no add-on; it was vital to who she was and what she achieved, particularly the aspects of faith and church that were foundational to her success.
Her father, Rev CL Franklin, was so influential in Detroit that he was a mentor to Rev Martin Luther King Jr. Gospel singers of the calibre of James Cleveland and Sam Cooke would visit her home, while Mahalia Jackson helped to raise Aretha after her pianist-and-singer mother died, just before her tenth birthday. So as she grew up, mixing with movers and shakers was normal family life, and she travelled as a singer with Dr King at the age of 16.
But so often, being a ‘Preacher’s Kid’ means rebellion in the teenage years, and Aretha had produced two children by two different fathers by the time she was 14. Despite his celebrity, her father was no role model, so could not have helped her situation. His philandering led to the family moving home more than once to escape scandal.
But where he would have influenced Aretha for good is in his presentation style. He recorded albums of songs and sermons, and knew the art of performance. With Aretha, that way of slowing down, speeding up, singing it low, taking it high, became intuitive – as was her phrasing on piano.
When Columbia signed her, they discarded all that experience. In true corporate style, the label missed her strengths completely, curbing that soulfulness and trying to market her singing jazz standards, show tunes and blues. They wasted nine albums over six years.
Enter Jerry Wexler, who signed her to Atlantic in 1967 with a plan. As he recounted in Craig Werner’s book Higher Ground: “I took her to church, sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself.”
He booked her into Alabama’s famed Muscle Shoals studio in 1967, where they recorded “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)”. After the recording, the astonished musicians danced and hugged each other with joy.
Franklin’s menacing manager-husband Ted White began to share a bottle with one of the horn players between takes, and as they drank, things got out of hand. Fights ensued and Wexler, Franklin and her husband all left, never to return.
But that one song was all that was needed. It became one of the greatest of her career and sparked her dynamite decade. Eighteen months later, she was on the front cover of Time magazine.
For 10 years, she won the Grammy for best R&B female vocal performance every single year, the award becoming known as “the Aretha”.
In 1972, she acknowledged her gospel roots, releasing Amazing Grace. Recording the title track was so emotional for the Reverend James Cleveland that he broke down in tears at the piano and had to leave the session. The album went double-platinum and is among the five Aretha recordings featured in the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was the best-selling gospel album by a woman ever, until Whitney Houston’s The Preacher’s Wife sold three million units.
Often, black singers who had grown up in the Church and moved on to secular success were regarded by their community as having sold out, but there was always respect for Aretha. Activist, Rev Al Sharpton commented: “She was unapologetically a hardcore, faith-believing Baptist. At the height of her career, she cut a gospel album. Who does that? Her faith is what motivated her.”
Her father once said: “If you want to know the truth, Aretha has never left the church. If you have the ability to feel, and you have the ability to hear, you know that Aretha is still a gospel singer.”
While his licentious lifestyle was a bad role model for Christian living at home, he was stronger in terms of the justice side of the gospel. His New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit was the first place Dr King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, with Aretha and Mahalia Jackson in the congregation.
Civil rights leader the Rev Joseph E. Lowery observed how, as well as providing the soundtrack for the civil rights movement: “Aretha’s music transcended race, nationality and religion and helped people from all backgrounds to recognise what they had in common.”
She also provided more tangible support for Dr King’s civil rights organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, playing fund-raising concerts with Harry Belafonte when finances dwindled.
As the 1970’s disco years drew on, she again fell foul of label politics, as she was pushed into a more honed style that failed to play to her raw strengths.
It was a completely different sound that brought her back into chart success in 1985. The Eurythmics’ Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves appropriately took advantage of the voice that empowered black women from her own generation and after.
In 1987 her duet with George Michael I Knew You were Waiting (for Me) gave her a final number one song. Although the context was a relationship, she was the right one to sing lines like, “I found my way out of the darkness, kept my faith.”
That year, she returned to New Bethel Baptist to record another Grammy-winning gospel album, One Lord One Faith One Baptism, and became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
That award recognised a soulfulness that comes from experiencing life. Aretha’s experience of hardship, loss and faith, together with the strength that they produce, combined to give her vocals those twin peaks of empathy and authority that stand out in any great gospel or soul vocalist.
She gave credit to God, telling Yahoo! News: “Being a singer is a natural gift…I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use… My faith always has been and always will be important to me.”
When President Obama needed a singer at his inauguration to represent musically what a black president meant to millions of Americans, Aretha’s name must have been one of the first on his list, along with other black activists like Mavis Staples, who had experienced the struggle for equality and succeeded.
Aretha did not like to discuss the cancer that she contracted in 2010, but after cancelling concerts due to illness, said in a 2013 Associated Press interview: “All prayer is good. Keep me in your prayers until I am 100 per cent, not 85, and back onstage.”
Referring to her last CAT scan, she added that all who saw it say, “This is miraculous.”
She continued: “I was talking to Smokey Robinson, my oldest, best friend Smokey, talking about the fact that some doctors are not very well acquainted with faith healing. And Smokey said, ‘Well, they just don’t know who your healer is…'”
Now she has gone, but not only has she left black women more empowered and confident, she has left us all with songs about real life and hope – such as in her 2007 Grammy win with Mary J. Blige:
Now I know that life is meant to be hard
That’s how I learned to appreciate my God
Though my courage may be tried, I can tell you I won’t hide
Because the footprints show you were by my side
You can lie to a child with a smiling face
Tell me that colour ain’t about a race
You can cast the first stone, you can break my bones
But you never gonna break, you never gonna break my faith