“When God loves you, what can be better than that?” ~ Aretha Franklin
There is so much I could write about Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul but I decided to concentrate on the highlights of her music career and her “social and civic contributions”.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father, Clarence LaVaughn “C. L.” Franklin was a Baptist minister and a circuit preacher while her mother, Barbara was an accomplished piano player and vocalist. Theirs was a troubled marriage because of her father’s philandering. The couple separated in 1948. Before her tenth birthday, Aretha’s mother died from a heart attack. Several women, including her grandmother and Mahalia Jackson alternated helping the children at the Franklin home and it was during this time that Aretha learned to play the piano by ear.
Following her mother’s death, Aretha began singing solos at New Bethel, debuting with the hymn, “Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me.” When she was twelve, her father became her manager, bringing her on the road with him during his “gospel caravan” tours for her to perform in various churches.
Her music career found Aretha signing on with big recording giants such as Columbia, Atlantic, Arista and RCA. She belted out many hits such as You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman, I Say A Little Prayer, Hold On, I’m Comin’. And she thrilled the younger generation with Who’s Zoomin’ Who and Freeway of Love. Hearing Freeway of Love transported me back to the ’80s which were a great time for me when I was living in New York. And who could forget I Knew You Were Waiting For Me, her number one duet with George Michael?
In 1980, she gave a command performance before the Queen at Prince Albert’s Hall, in 2009 she sang at the 2009 inauguration of President Barak Obama. In the following year, she received an honorary degree from Yale University. In 2014, she received honorary degrees from Harvard University and New York University as well as honorary doctorates in music from Princeton, Yale, Brown, Pennsylvania, Berkeley, New England Conservatory of Music and University of Michigan. She was the recipient of other honors such as Doctor of Humane Letters and Doctor of Law degree.
Aretha was dubbed “one of the giants of soul music, and indeed of American pop as a whole. More than any other performer, she epitomized soul at its most gospel-charged.” Her voice was described as being a “powerful mezzo-soprano voice” and she was praised for her arrangements and interpretations of other artists’ hit songs. At the age of 14 when she recorded her first album, Songs of Faith, Jerry Wexler declared that her voice “was not that of a child but rather of an ecstatic hierophant.” A hierophant is a person who brings religious congregants into the presence of that which is deemed holy. Aretha’s explanation for that would have likely been, “Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that.”
Singing and music weren’t her only passions. Aretha was a civil rights activist. Throughout her life, she was involved in the struggle for civil rights and women’s rights. When Angela Davis was jailed in 1970, Aretha told Jet Magazine that, “Angela Davis must go free… Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people.” Not surprisingly, her songs “Respect” and “Natural Woman” became anthems of these movements for social change. She was also a staunch supporter of Native American rights, supporting their struggles worldwide and movements which fostered their cultural rights.
“We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It’s our basic human right” ~ Aretha Franklin
It was a sad day when it was announced that the great Aretha Franklin passed away after losing her battle with pancreatic cancer. She leaves behind a world touched by her music, her incomparable voice and her effortless work in championing human, civil and women’s rights. She was the first woman to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. In 2013, she was again ranked first in Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Singers” list.
“American history wells up when Aretha sings. Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope” – President Obama in response to her performance of “A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors.
Notes to Women salutes the woman with “the voice of the civil rights movement, the voice of black America” and a “symbol of black equality” She was an inspiration not only for those in the music world but for all of us. Although she is no longer with us, her music, her legacy will live on.
“It really is an honor if I can be inspirational to a younger singer or person. It means I’ve done my job” ~ Aretha Franklin