Aretha: The Voice of America

It may be difficult for anyone born after 1980 to fully grasp how important Aretha Franklin has been to America. There is simply no longer any national context or political narrative that adequately explains it. She began as just a small girl whose remarkable voice was big enough to convey all the frustrated yearnings of an oppressed people, and all the unfulfilled promise of a great nation. We no longer inhabit the kind of world that gave shape, depth, and momentum to Franklin’s career — my own experiential understanding of America has more in common with that of my grandmother, who was born in 1888, than with people who hit their teens or twenties during the 21st century.

With Aretha passing this week at the age of 76, I thought of her scene in 1980’s Blues Brothers, a vastly underrated musical comedy that visually centers everything good about this country around the art and personal struggles of roots musicians like Aretha, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker.

Aretha — lithe and gorgeous in her waitress uniform — portrays the hardworking owner of a diner who performs a forcefully kinetic version of “Think” to warn her man not to leave his job in the kitchen to rejoin the ragtag Blues Brothers Band. Aretha (reportedly frustrated in her lifelong desire for a movie career) acts her ass off, giving this cameo role layers of depth and verisimilitude that director John Landis could not have anticipated. Her onscreen transition from solicitous waitress to battle-ready matriarch is a switch every black woman learns to flip to protect herself and her family. With every shoulder roll, emphatic shout, and perfectly enunciated ad-lib, Franklin — with three fierce customers/backup singers bearing witness — demands respect, cooperation, and common sense from the feckless men who threaten her domestic tranquility. The symbolic setting is an immaculate blue-collar work space in which Aretha looms larger than life, ruling with regal physicality as she brings one of the few songs she actually wrote to vivid life. It was electrifying for me to watch her compress all the dignity, delight, and despair of being black, female, and working-class into that one brief performance. It prefigured every Destiny’s Child hit, every riot grrrl anthem, and every female-empowerment video ever broadcast on MTV. The scene tells a universal story in some of its particulars. But also a profoundly black story.

The truth is, Americans born or transplanted into a United States reshaped (but not completely redeemed) by the civil rights decade of the 1960s no longer operate from the same intergenerational memories of fighting the kinds of embedded racism that American blues and black gospel evolved to combat or transcend. Despite the malicious intent of Jim Crow-era segregation, it unintentionally helped black leaders better organize, protect, and uplift future generations by keeping black wealth and genius circulating within predominantly black enclaves. It’s worth remembering that before civil rights organizations decided to focus on persuading whites to like, respect, and hire us, black Americans dedicated more of our resources toward cultivating neighborhood institutions and helping one another. In fact, before federally mandated desegregation, black American talent and entrepreneurship was almost wholly devoted to promoting black socioeconomic networks and self-reliant black excellence. From the late 1800s through the early 1970s, black newspapers, fraternities, and colleges groomed the self-aware black elite that ultimately produced social change through the agency of catalytic individuals like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, and . . . Miss Aretha Franklin.

Aretha Louise Franklin was born into an educated, religious family in 1942 — one year before a series of “hate strikes” by white autoworkers refusing to ply their trade alongside newly hired black mechanics touched off violent race riots that tore Detroit apart. Aretha’s brother Cecil, a college history major, once asked their preacher father why he moved his growing family from relatively progressive Buffalo to a church serving a city seething with racial tensions. The Reverend C.L. Franklin, a persuasive “singing minister” who infused his sermons with practical advice and philosophical metaphors, reportedly responded: “My job was to tend to the spiritual needs of the black community . . . but I also saw the need to raise everyone’s political consciousness. . . . Moral justice and social justice cannot be separated.”

Born in the Deep South, the Reverend Franklin used his ministry to support both labor organizer A. Philip Randolph’s and the Reverend Dr. King’s political agendas. As King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference transformed a 1954 bus boycott into a national crusade for equal rights and justice, Aretha’s stature within the black community rose alongside her father’s, with both becoming associated with the core leadership of the movement. Aretha’s inspired singing at rallies, at fundraisers, and on the radio during the increasingly turbulent 1960s and ’70s affirmed both her blackness and her activism as virtues. It was a civic responsibility she shouldered proudly.

During the 1940s and ’50s, independent black record companies (often housed in back of neighborhood record stores) sometimes pressed spoken-word albums for famous traveling preachers, as well as singles by gospel and r&b acts. After moving from Buffalo to Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church in the mid-’40s, Reverend Franklin partnered with the nearby owner of Von/JVB Records to release both his best sermons and the earliest recordings featuring his daughters. All of Aretha’s four full siblings were musical, her two sisters frequently joining her in the studio or on the road. But while the Reverend Franklin deliberately steered his other children toward college degrees, leaving them music as a part-time pursuit, Aretha was allowed to focus exclusively on music.

A Memphis-born, Detroit-bred musical prodigy who was improvising complex chords and riffs on the family piano at seven, Aretha was also a shy, somewhat introverted middle child. At the age of ten she lost her mother to a heart attack, and high-profile friends of her father’s, including gospel star Clara Ward and blues great Dinah Washington, became mother figures who nurtured and encouraged Aretha’s talent. She would grow up to cover tunes made famous by both women. Miracles co-founder Smokey Robinson, a childhood friend of Aretha’s brother, told biographer David Ritz that they would be listening to Sarah Vaughan records at the Franklin home, only to be surprised by a still preadolescent Aretha matching Vaughan note for note. “Sarah’s riffs are the most complex of any singer,” Robinson recalled, “yet Aretha shadowed them like it was the most natural thing in the world.”

Raised by her charismatic father to accompany him on piano and sing during church services, at twelve Aretha joined her dad on the road as part of his popular “traveling religious service.” When celebrity guests like Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine dropped by to spend time with the reverend, he would proudly wake Aretha up to sing for them. In this way “Ree” achieved early recognition as one of the best of a whole generation of r&b singers who learned to move a crowd by channeling the Holy Spirit. But unlike many gospel singers who switched to “worldly” music, Aretha didn’t suffer the usual “shunning” by gospel fans when a former musical minister chooses to sing about anything other than God. In 1972, when Aretha and the Reverend James Cleveland recorded her gospel album Amazing Grace for Atlantic, she insisted the music be part of an actual worship service in a church, just like she and her dad used to do. Perhaps Ree got a pass because her father was still bringing people to Jesus; perhaps it was because of the spiritual aura that surrounded even her songs about passionate love and heartache.

At eighteen, in 1960, Aretha was successfully shopped by her father to John Hammond at Columbia Records, who had previously signed Billie Holiday, among other jazz greats. Born with perfect pitch and the spooky ability to learn any song or mimic any vocal delivery by ear, Aretha had already been a strong draw on the national gospel circuit for five years. Among her many early mentors was Cleveland, a master choir director who expanded her knowledge of arranging and production techniques. Ironically, her ability to do so many things so well was to delay Aretha’s rise to secular fame. Able and willing to go in multiple directions, she couldn’t decide exactly how to market herself. At first, she and her father were certain that, since Columbia was already home to Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Mathis, it would prove the perfect launching pad for an emergent Queen of Pop Soul. But they had failed to consider that an old, established label like Columbia might be slow to understand the changing tastes of a growing youth market.

Seeing her as an artist with Nancy Wilson potential, Columbia had Detroit’s teenage powerhouse recording mostly standards and cabaret blues material, with arrangements too sedate to appeal to hormonal postwar teens already consuming savvy Motown dance hits and sexy doo-wop. So after eight albums in six years that earned critical acclaim but negligible public response, Aretha left the home of Mahalia for Atlantic Records, the rocking house that Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, the Drifters, and a deal with Stax Records had built.

In the age of Auto-Tune it can be hard to imagine a time when all live singers were expected to have perfect tonal control of their own voices; yet this was what church training sought to instill. Vocal technique was used to facilitate communication and rapport with the audience. Church singers, in imitation of a skillful preacher delivering a sermon, were supposed to change volume, intonation, phrasing, vibrato — even lyrics and emotional intensity — according to what each theme or rhetorical moment seemed to require. Gospel went beyond the more cerebral sonic explorations of jazz to connect with primal levels of instinct and psyche that would subsequently infiltrate pop music via the sister genres of r&b and rock.

Black life in America has always generated its own soundtrack. Different styles — from circle shouts to work songs to jump blues — were spread first through live performance, then via various fixed and electronic media, as a way to give voice to our collective trials and triumphs as a people. Under the severe restrictions of slavery, which only slightly loosened and shifted after manumission, black music needed to serve as both protest and catharsis, allowing us to vent the most complex and nuanced emotions — ideally, as soon as they were felt. This is why first gospel, then r&b, became the soundtrack to the civil rights movement. And why Aretha, with her church training, became acknowledged as “the voice” of that movement. Released in 1967 with a sound that wedded the poppy verve of Motown to the sultry syncopations of Stax and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in Alabama, Aretha’s titanic Atlantic debut served to further consolidate and strengthen the collective dream of a successfully integrated United States.

Aretha’s particular musical gift was a deeply intuitive form of interpretation that made her recordings of “Spirit in the Dark,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Think” sound impossibly intimate and omniscient. As with her cover of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” Aretha didn’t have to write a song in order to make it her own. Her vocal performance implied not only that she understood what her listeners were feeling, but that she somehow also understood everything any listener would ever feel. This is an illusion, of course, but one so convincing that the bewitching appeal of it never fades. It is perhaps this almost telepathic rapport Aretha can build with her listeners, as she adds layers of meaning to each phrase, that facilitates spiritual healing in church settings. It is certainly one of the factors that lifts her best recordings above those of her peers, and from there, beyond category.

As the “civil rights decade” transitioned into the “black-power decade,” all music became more political. Singer-songwriters like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield produced protest and empowerment anthems. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From took Motown into the political arena. White pop musicians from Elvis to Joni Mitchell included anti-war and ecological themes in their set lists. Within this increasingly topical and diverse musical atmosphere, Aretha’s signature renditions of “Respect,” “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream,” and “Young, Gifted, and Black” were especially valued for their political subtexts as well as an ability to encourage fallen fighters not to give up hope. As a child in the Sixties and Seventies, I watched nightly news broadcasts in which political violence seemed to be everywhere, at home and abroad. People were frightened and angry. But the musical response to my trepidation was not the destructive rage of N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police,” but softer, sweeter, more constructive songs. Aretha’s choruses exhorted us to have courage, to endure. Lyrics like “Baby, baby, be strong/Baby, baby, hold on” would thread their way through “Lose This Dream” like the balm of Gilead.

Throughout her career, Aretha moved effortlessly between overtly evangelical recordings like 1987’s double album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, gutbucket soul, delicate Bacharach-and-David ballads, and provocative blues-rock covers, as if to show those who would come after her how it should be done. Will today’s stars like Rihanna and Beyoncé even attempt to replicate the diversity of Aretha’s catalog? Would their existing audience tolerate such a move?

The creative intimacy and competitiveness of the pre-digital music scene was such that all the great bands and singers knew and admired one another. They made a game out of covering each other’s hits and vying for critical acclaim. Did Aretha envy Dionne Warwick’s and Roberta Flack’s pop singles? Did Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle, or Gladys Knight ever strive to snatch Aretha’s crown as Queen of Soul? They were each talented and shrewd enough to keep us guessing with every new album and live performance.

No matter how far into secular music Aretha’s contracts with Columbia (1960-1966), Atlantic (1967-1979), or Arista (1980-2003) would take her, gospel would continue to characterize her sound, whether she was recording the Chic-influenced “Jump to It” in 1982 for writer-producer Luther Vandross or duetting with Whitney Houston in 1989 on an underground dance remix of “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” produced by Clivillés and Cole of C&C Music Factory. Indeed, Aretha’s extraordinary ear and willingness to experiment led to many interesting singles that kept her sound relevant. She duetted with Annie Lennox of Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” in 1985, with George Michael on “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” in 1987, and with Mary J. Blige on “Never Gonna Break My Faith” in 2006. Her legacy of delivering pop, gospel, and r&b covers that blow the doors off the originals goes all the way back to 1967’s distaff take on Otis Redding’s “Respect.” And even in her later years, Aretha managed to astonish, taking both a 1994 cover of the Clivillés-and-Cole deep-house classic “A Deeper Love” and a 2014 cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to the top of the Billboard dance chart.

In 1980, Clive Davis signed Aretha to Arista Records, one of the few major labels willing to invest in legacy soul divas despite the recording-industry recession of 1979 and the rising popularity of the Minneapolis Sound, punky new wave, house, world beat, and hip-hop. This happened to be the same year Aretha’s performance of “Think” in The Blues Brothers put her golden pipes back on the radar of a teen audience. Protest music, which had been an organic and central part of pop culture in the Sixties and Seventies, became a more random, scattershot affair for recording acts in the 1980s. Political songs were often created more to shock or provoke than to make people think and act in more conscious ways. For every trenchant rap like “The Message,” club track like “Beat the Street,” or ska broadside like “Ghost Town,” there emerged dozens of mindless ditties about little or nothing. Topical lyrics in general became darker and more bitter. Without a progressive social context or a community mobilized around higher ideals, entertainment becomes rather hollow. Soulless. (The Eighties were additionally tough on Aretha and the Franklin family, whose patriarch had been shot in a botched robbery and would remain in a coma for five years before dying in 1984.)

To update Aretha’s appeal, Davis resolved to integrate her approach to easy-listening standards on Columbia with the party-hearty stance she took toward gutbucket funk and soul on Atlantic. The resulting synthesis included a touch of Brill Building swing that managed to respect Franklin’s iconic position among older fans while hoping to catch precocious younger consumers. Interestingly, this was the same AOR fusion Arista successfully used to launch Dionne Warwick’s cousin Whitney Houston in 1985.

Near the end of the Eighties, as vocals and instruments couldn’t sound more robotic, the stylistic pendulum began to swing back toward Aretha’s richly human modes of expression. In 1991, TLC, an Atlanta girl group that featured two young singers and a rapper, asserted their feminism and sexual freedom with the same unabashed candor displayed on “Chain of Fools.” T-Boz, whose throaty contralto makes up in precision what it lacks in range, always reminds me of Aretha’s sly lower register. In 1988, Tracy Chapman’s first album harked back to the wry folk wisdom and compassionate insights of Aretha’s solo work on piano, while in 1990 Mariah Carey’s Vision of Love revived the unbridled passion that shaped Aretha’s early recordings on Atlantic. Neither the neo-folk singer nor the pop-soul princess shares Aretha’s timbre — only a recognizable portion of her unique sensibility. In particular, her resilience.

Mary J. Blige, as Puff Daddy’s favorite protégée, strove to voice the hopes and realities of her embattled generation as Aretha had done. But it was singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Meshell Ndegeocello who came closer to having all the skills Aretha brought to the stage. Erykah Badu came out of Texas in 1997 with the perfect voice and attitude to reinvent r&b in her own spooky punk soul sister image: irreverent, sardonic, a woman in control of herself and her men, and completely indomitable. Badu is Aretha as she liked to see herself . . . unbreakable. Remember those busy runs toward the end of “Respect” and “Think,” where Aretha ad-libs all kinds of sass? The diva is in the details, and nobody can throw shade into a vocal aside any better. It’s a side of the singer people are often too worshipful to talk about, but it’s an important aspect of her inner strength. She’s survived enough genuine tragedy and heartbreak in life to be allowed to own her moments of bitchiness or depression. But like many women she chooses to tough it out, refusing to be portrayed as weak or vulnerable in any way.

Two years ago, the Knowles sisters put out two albums attempting to set new standards for contemporary post-hip-hop soul. Like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, they want to deepen the lyrical discourse. Maybe even discuss some kind of social revolution. To focus attention on mood and meaning, both Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table apply a skeletal approach to melody and harmony. But the feeling conveyed within the compressed scales and digitized atmospherics Solange uses throughout A Seat at the Table is as stark and moving as anything heard on Aretha’s first live album, Aretha in Paris. It’s almost as if both women studied the palpable acoustic space surrounding the tiny combo on that stage and found a way to re-create those aural textures in a digital setting. Lemonade, in its themes and ambition, may have reminded listeners of Lauryn Hill’s deeply personal 1998 opus The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, or even Alicia Keys’s solo debut. But what I hear in all three productions are aspects of Aretha channeled through each performer. They are heirs to Aretha and the black church in the best possible way, in that they haven’t forgotten that healing comes from not being afraid to reveal your naked heart.

Slowly and quietly, the past few decades saw increasing numbers of younger artists drinking at the font of Aretha’s legacy: Cheryl Pepsii Riley released a moving version of “Ain’t No Way” in 1991, and both Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige managed to cut successful new duets with her. But leave it to the feisty septuagenarian to have the final say on who’s zoomin’ who, by cutting the 2014 concept album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, which entered Billboard‘s r&b chart at No. 3. Part tribute, part cutting contest, the album shows Franklin bringing all her emotional intelligence plus a shrewd sense of historical perspective to some of the biggest singles the original performers ever had. Adele, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Chaka Khan, Gloria Gaynor, Barbra Streisand, Cissy Houston, Gladys Knight, Dinah Washington, and Sinéad O’Connor come together in this context as an intriguing gallery of idols and competitors.

Aretha’s reputation within the pop-music establishment is so undeniable as to render any accounting foolish. But the accolades are not why we love her. None of the presidential, civic, municipal, or international awards that came her way explain why this woman had the power to move us so much. I celebrate having been a witness to her life, and mourn her passing because she was special, and we may not see her equal again. Aretha didn’t give many interviews, nor did she explain herself much. But the quote that most reveals the inner thoughts and depths of feeling that fueled her ability to touch an audience came from an interview she gave Essence magazine in the 1970s:

“Being black means being beautiful,” Aretha said. “It also means struggles and it also means pain. And every black woman knows of that struggle, that pain, and she feels it whenever she looks at her man and her sons. Being black also means searching for oneself and one’s place among others. There is so much we need to find. Like more purpose in life, and more self-love. That must come first. It certainly had to come first for me.”

Published in: Village Voice, August 17, 2018