It may have been Madonna’s 60th birthday last Thursday, but the 16th August will now be remembered for a different queen. A queen whose voice has rung out in Cadillacs, kitchens, churches and clubs for the past 50 years. A voice that has made us love, cry, rejoice, dance and sing feeling more empowered than Beyoncé at the Louvre. With so many of her songs being such an influence in people’s lives, and her voice setting the bar for every diva and aspiring singer, it’s difficult to think of where the music industry, or perhaps even the world, would be without Aretha Franklin.
Yet, after a disconcerting conversation with a friend whose response to the name ‘Aretha Franklin’ was ‘oh that black girl who died’ – cue gasp – and who didn’t even recognise Respect when played, I thought to myself, did we really give Aretha enough of our own r-e-s-p-e-c-t? Even though all of us can spell respect without thinking twice, and we will go crazy when we hear Say A Little Prayer (partly thanks to Rupert Everett), did we really give the the woman behind them enough credit?
Aretha’s voice was nothing but powerful and fearless, but behind the diva’s fur coats and at times frosty disposition she lived her own struggles in both her professional career and personal life. She had no mother and two children by the age of 18, two marriages including one to her hot-tempered and abusive manager Ted White in the 1960’s, and lost all three of her siblings to cancer as well as fighting her own battle with the disease for the past eight years. Rather than concealing her struggles with outpours of false lyrics and meaningless clichés, Aretha opened them up to us and expressed herself in song. Her album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, is an incredible example of this, as she sings of her own relationship trouble and love’s cruelty with excruciating honesty. In songs like Drown in My Own Tears (originally by Ray Charles) as well as the title track of the album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, we hear Aretha confess ‘The way you treat me is a shame / How could ya hurt me so bad’ and ‘I sit and cry, / Just like a child / My pouring tears / Are runnin’ wild’. Her expressions of melancholy and raw emotion captured the essence of true blues. For even though they were personal to her, she gives us a voice through which we can all share our own troubles. She sang for herself but in turn sang for everyone else.
But on that same album from 1967 Aretha gives us a second voice. The gospel voice she learnt to sing with nurtured by her father, himself a preacher famous for his sermons in churches across America. Where the blues brought her voice its emotion, gospel brought it the strength and courage that convinced us that we have the power to overcome any hardships. The album opens with those legendary lines, ‘What you want, baby I got it’ and in less than two and a half minutes, Aretha has us all on our feet (in my case tables) spelling out and asking for a lil’ respect. Although Respect is regarded as an anthem for strong women and those fighting for racial equality, I firmly believe that it is a song for all people – men and women, coloured and white – who deserve respect from a society that rarely gives it. In her own words, Aretha described the song as reflecting ‘the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect’. The message of freedom and strength resounded in so many of Aretha’s songs such as Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and A Change is Gonna Come, and her illustrious performance in the 1980 film, The Blues Brothers, with her song Think.
Despite Respect originally being a song by Otis Redding, the song became Aretha’s as soon as she hit its first note. She was able to breathe new life into songs by other artists or songs written for her purely through the conviction of her voice. Every fibre and feeling in Aretha’s body went into that faultless, rich, commanding voice. There was no need for the extra frills and trills or editing (to quote herself, “What is auto-tune? I don’t even know what that is”), just heart and soul that created shiver-provoking, heart-in-mouth inducing notes but also the most delicate and silkiest of tones. It was her gift from God that she used to bless and heal the world around her, and we believed every word she sang. Of course, one of the best examples of this is her soul-stirring record, written for her by Carole King in 1967, You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman). I implore you to listen to the lyrics of this song and the passion with which Aretha sings and try to supress the glowing feeling inside that she inspires. Pure happiness, pure sorrow, love, hatred – it’s all in there. And if that doesn’t do it watch her rendition at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, and try to ignore hysterical Carole King who gets a little too much airtime.
It’s difficult to think that the woman demanding respect so confidently is the same woman lamenting over a broken heart one track later. But that is what Aretha Franklin did, she captured the fragility and variety of the human experience in her voice, but also provided us with the strength to challenge it. All with one blessed and beautiful voice. Sue me for stealing, but I believe our man Barack Obama summarised it best:
“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. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”
We should ALL be saying a little prayer for the Queen of Soul. RIP Aretha.