Aretha Franklin: March 25, 1942 – August 16, 2018.
The passing of legendary Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin at age 76 has hit me and millions of others like a ton of bricks.
My heart is heavy and tears are welling as I think of one memorable song after another from Lady Soul’s incredible catalogue of hits while trying to fathom that we are saying goodbye to this icon of music, this national treasure who had seemingly overcome so many well-documented health issues and other struggles, and one who had a personal and professional resiliency like few others before, during or since her decades-long heyday.
Following the past three-week stretch in which I saw monarchs who preside over lesser kingdoms perform live: “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” Mary J. Blige (July 20), “Queen of Funk” Chaka Khan (July 22) and “Queen Bey” Beyoncé Knowles (August 11), and just hours after putting together a rough draft of an article about this past Friday’s release of the new album by Nicki Minaj, ironically titled Queen, I never thought I would be writing this article now… about the Queen of queens.
Aretha Franklin has meant so many things to so many generations of music fans. She was an artist my mother and father were grooving to when I was still in diapers. I hadn’t even had my first birthday when her signature Otis Redding cover of “Respect” topped both the pop and soul charts, merely seven days after her breakthrough single, “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)” had completed its No. 1 run on the soul list.
I was only in my second year when Aretha rolled off a string of classics that included “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain Of Fools,” “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Ain’t No Way” and “Think” (yes, all of those charted in a one-year span!).
However, unlike my parents who were already adults, I grew up listening to Aretha. I was that lucky kid who paid attention while Mom played early seventies 45s like “Spanish Harlem,” “Day Dreaming” and “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” over and over, or when she played all those late-1960’s classics from Lady Soul’s greatest hits album. Later, at ten years old, I listened curiously and wondered what Aretha meant as she poured out her heart and soul on the sultry original version of the Curtis Mayfield-penned classic “Something He Can Feel.”
I learned at an early age about the gifts Aretha had, whether it was her ability to wrap her majestic, church-honed voice around every note of a song, or her keen attention to detail in every line. Rarely would she finish a line without enunciating every “s” or “t” that ended a word.
I later learned of the social and political consciousness the younger Aretha symbolized, her gospel roots and her father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, whom she had lost to violence near the end of her legendary stint with Atlantic Records. It was with that label she racked up 17 No. 1 R&B chart hits – tying her with The Godfather James Brown for the most (she would add three more with Arista, giving her the lead outright).
The torchy “United Together” and later her duet with George Benson, “Love All The Hurt Away,” marked Aretha’s transition from Atlantic to Clive Davis’ Arista label and bridged my family’s move from New Jersey back to Virginia in 1981.
It was there, at 16, that I was jamming it up at high school dances while classmate and local DJ Pete Coleman rocked the turntables with the long version of the Luther Vandross-created “Jump To It,” Aretha’s first No. 1 single in five years.
Three years later, I was that black college kid at a mostly white university who celebrated Aretha’s triumphant return to the top with 1985’s “Freeway of Love,” her twentieth (and still record high) No. 1 song on the Billboard soul chart – and a top-3 crossover pop hit as well. I was giddy that these white kids were still digging her stuff (we black folks had never really left Aretha’s party) and I would try to convince anyone who’d listen that the follow-up singles, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” – grammatical error and all – and “Another Night” from the same album, were both better songs than “Freeway.”
I was even more elated when the Queen reclaimed her throne in 1987 on the duet with the late George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” which became her first pop No. 1 since “Respect” 20 years earlier. Just months before the George Michael duet, rock legend Keith Richards gave further testimony to Aretha’s royal status when he declared she was the only one worthy of a cover of his Rolling Stones classic, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” when it became a movie and soundtrack title.
As the 1980s came to an end, I smiled as she maintained her perch while teaming up with more legends (Elton on “Through The Storm”; Whitney on “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” – the latter being a sassy entry into the many love-triangle battle duets, with the two women hamming it up while bridging the musical gap between Michael & Paul’s “The Girl Is Mine” in 1982 and Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” in ‘98).
As had been the case with then-rising stars George Michael or Whitney Houston, it seemed only natural that younger, contemporary artists would gawk at the chance to work with Franklin in the 1990s (as Babyface did on “Willing to Forgive” from the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack; or Lauryn Hill did on “A Rose Is Still A Rose,” the title track from Aretha’s last hit album). They joined a long list of Aretha collaborators that included Stevie Wonder, Quincy, Narada Michael Walden and so many others.
And it didn’t stop there.
How many among us marveled as she gave that stunning performance of Luciano Pavarotti’s aria “Nessun dorma,” in soulful operatic fashion at the 1998 Grammy Awards, no less as a last-minute stand-in for an ailing Pavarotti?
Or when she was personally chosen by President Obama to perform at his first inauguration in 2009? The significance of that moment was not lost on anyone. Long considered the musical voice of black America and the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, who better than the Queen to commemorate the occasion of the nation’s first black president?
As a man entering his 50s in 2016, I was once again reminded of Aretha’s earlier beautiful musical output when I discovered her pre-Atlantic Records single “One Step Ahead,” a minor 1965 hit I had somehow missed on the Columbia label, which predated her worldwide fame but was prominently featured in the 2016 Best Picture Oscar-winning film Moonlight.
And then there was the Queen’s funnier, if not somewhat cutting side.
I was among many friends who chuckled at “Auntie Ree’s” most diva-like moments, like the ongoing, but admittedly petty beef with Dionne Warwick or the time she had to answer for not appearing at Whitney’s star-studded memorial service in 2012. Or like that two-minutes-too-long extended version of “The Star Spangled Banner” she performed before a 2016 Thanksgiving Day NFL game in her Detroit hometown, and like the many unflattering but hilarious voiceover parodies of her circulating the Internet.
Even when she wasn’t throwing direct shade at someone, she was diva-effective. When asked her opinion about some of today’s popular singers – presumably their singing abilities – all she could muster when Taylor Swift’s name was mentioned was “nice gowns, beautiful gowns” – and with the straightest of faces.
It was class and crass as only Queen Aretha could deliver it.
Not all of her diva moments translated well though. In 2007 at 65, she teamed with former American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino for the decades-late slang titled single “Put You Up On Game” (yes, she was 65). In 2014, she tried to put her stamp on Adele’s juggernaut single “Rolling In The Deep” only a couple of years after it had left our consciousness and dubbed hers “The Aretha Version.” Both efforts fell short of the top 40 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
Then there was her penchant for being late to or even cancelling live shows. In 2017, I opted not to buy tickets for her concert here in Chicago after an earlier scheduled show had been cancelled near the last minute.
It was my loss and a decision I figured I’d live to regret.
But I never lost sight of her unparalleled achievements in music.
Being the consummate chart watcher, I knew that Aretha reigned for more than three decades as the woman with more Billboard Hot 100 hits than any other. That was until early 2017 when headlines touted that rapper Nicki Minaj had eclipsed Aretha’s total, and Minaj wasn’t gracious or humble about it either.
Like the Royal Guard, I and others instantly came to Re-Re’s defense, noting that most of Minaj’s entries came during the streaming era, spent very few weeks on the chart, and listed Minaj as a featured act. Aretha had gained her 77 chart singles (and more than a hundred on the soul chart) the old, hard way – without the aid of tons of millennials streaming multiple songs in a single sitting – and always as a lead act!
Aretha Franklin wasn’t going to be a featured artist on anybody else’s songs.
Ultimately, Aretha’s chart accomplishments – as monumental as they were – seemed like mere stepping-stones to the many career accolades she would later attain, like being the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, being named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1994 or being bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005.
And that’s not to mention the many honorary degrees she received for her contributions to music as both a singer and songwriter, or when she won the first eight Grammys for Best R&B Vocal – Female from 1968-75 – an award that was seemingly created for her.
Or the many times she stood as a musical beacon of light for black people during the Civil Rights Movement.
To me, it was all of those things combined, not just the chart numbers, which made Aretha’s reign as Queen an eternal one. Sure there were chinks in her armor as personal and professional challenges came and went or when some other diva foolishly declared herself “queen of (fill in the blank).”
But, like the phoenix, Aretha always seemed to rise above it all.
That’s why the news of her passing hits us so hard now. We knew we would not have her forever, but we kind of took for granted she’d be with us a little while longer. We hoped against hope that she’d get through this last challenge as well.
Alas, she did not. But Aretha Franklin’s legacy is one that will live forever. For she was not just the Queen of Soul.
To me she was simply the Queen, one that I was very fortunate to have grown up witnessing and following for all of my years on this earth, and one who will be greatly missed.
R.I.P. Aretha Franklin (March 25, 1942 – August 16, 2018).
You will always be Queen!