After a variety of media reports of ill health that swirled this week, it can be confirmed that Aretha Franklin, known as “The Queen of Soul,” passed away at her Detroit home this morning at the age of 76.
There are far better writers than can do a far better job of telling her life story, so I’ll stick to the musical history portion of it. Aretha made her first record at 14, and by 18 was signed to Columbia Records. (If you happen to have a copy of “Never Grow Old” on JVB records, her first release, I’d be happy to take it off of your hands as I’ve never seen one.) In all Franklin released 26 sides for Columbia, with only one of them – 1961’s “Rock Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” – cracking the Top 40, peaking at #37.
It was her move to Atlantic Records in 1967 that turned the tide. In sessions with Stax musicians at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Franklin began cutting the songs that would define late-1960s R&B. Her first record for Atlantic, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” shot to the top of the R&B chart and crossed over as a Top Ten pop hit. In a three-year span from ’67 to ’69 Aretha managed nine Top Ten hits and an additional seven in the Top Forty on the way to dominating the R&B charts. The 1970s showed no sign of the hit parade stopping, either. In that decade Franklin topped the R&B chart ten times and put a slew of hits into the pop Top Forty as well.
A move to Arista Records in the 1980s didn’t yield many hits, but her work there introduced her to a new generation of music lovers. A 1985 comeback yielded two hits in “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” and her 1987 duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting,” went on to be her second and final #1 Pop hit. (There are many injustices in the chart world, and that last sentence explains one of them.) Meanwhile, the inclusion of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” on the soundtrack of The Big Chill spurred a re-interest in Aretha’s back catalog among middle-aged Baby Boomers looking to replace their lost vinyl on newfangled compact disks.
For me, it was the 1960s hits that stood out the most. I’ve probably played Aretha’s music thousands of times with selections across her whole career (yes, including the 80s stuff in my Adult Contemporary days). But these are the songs I come back to and select when I get to pick the music for an audience of one:
“(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” This should have been a much bigger hit, and it was a #5 record. It’s just a perfect piece of soul music.
“Think.” Sure, its inclusion in The Blues Brothers didn’t hurt any, but ‘the original is still the greatest,’ and it represents an important shift in soul music: the rise of a strong female voice advocating for women.
“Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” I won’t ignore the 70’s, and it wouldn’t matter when this record was released – it’s perfect.
“Eleanor Rigby.” Don’t get me wrong: the Beatles’ version is still definitive. But if you are unfamiliar with this take on it, you need to be. Aretha personalizes the song, and not just by singing it in the first person. It goes from funereal to fantastic.
But – the one that I can’t look past is “Respect.” Otis Redding wrote it and did it first. Supposedly, after hearing Aretha’s version, he said “That girl stole my song.” He was right. We don’t think of Aretha without thinking of “Respect.” She completely flipped the script on Redding’s lyrics. In his version, it’s about a man expecting lovin’ and dinner when he comes home from work. Franklin suggests that she – a woman of color – has a value as well, and deserves the same level of respect. From a social standpoint in 1967, it’s pretty damned revolutionary. So much so that, in doing the research for my dissertation, which asked if Black and female artists were placed at a chart disadvantage due to programming decisions in Top 40, I learned that all but one station in Grand Rapids, MI declined to play the record when it came out. One program director, when asked why his station would pass on a record that was #1 in the nation, simply said that he thought it was “a little uppity.”
I’d like to say that we’ve progressed since then, but I can’t. In one stop as a program director of an Oldies station I had it pointed out to me that the station was sounding “a little darker” these days, and shouldn’t I fix it? Before we dismiss that as ancient history, we should note that that was in 2008, some forty years after the pronouncement of “uppity.” The record is still a little revolutionary, it seems.
Sock it to me. Repeat. You can hear “Respect” by clicking here.