Virtually every headline celebrating the life and career of Aretha Franklin, who died of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 16 at age 76, will describe her as the “Queen of Soul” — and it’s a befitting title for someone who represented herself and African Americans with an aura of regality. Yet, “Queen of Soul” is a misnomer, obscuring the genius of an artist who had a mastery of multiple genres of American music, including gospel, the blues, jazz, “hippie”-rock and, of course, soul. In this regard, Franklin was peerless.
Born in a historical moment where Black genius was thought to be an accident of nature, Franklin was no accident. Franklin was born in Memphis, Tenn., but after a move to Buffalo, N.Y., her family settled in Detroit, where her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, became pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church. Franklin did her first public singing in that church and would record her first album, Songs of Faith, in New Bethel in 1956. She was 14. In her father’s home, she had regular contact with the elite of the Black music world, sitting at the feet of the “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington, meeting Sam Cooke and having regular visits from gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, the latter of whom would be her most profound influence as a vocalist.
Also in Franklin’s orbit was a young James Cleveland, who for a time served as the Rev. Franklin’s musical director. It was from Cleveland that Franklin learned many of her early musical lessons, and who would revolutionize the sound of gospel throughout the 1960s.
When Franklin signed with Columbia Records in 1960 at age 18, she was arguably the most prepared artist in the Black music tradition. At Columbia, Franklin’s career suffered from a lack of imagination and boldness on the part of the label. When you hear Franklin sing People, a song long associated with her then-labelmate Barbara Streisand, you realize that if Franklin were White, she might have had the same opportunities on stage and in the movies that were afforded Streisand.
What Columbia missed, veteran Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler didn’t. He signed Franklin to Atlantic Records, the onetime home of Ray Charles, in late 1966. With the release of I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, which included her signature Respect, the future of American music was set in motion.
The full range of Franklin’s genius was witnessed on three albums released in the early 1970s. In February 1971, Franklin did a three-night stand at The Fillmore West, most known as the house that the Grateful Dead built. Franklin won over an audience of hippies. The album might be remembered as her greatest, if not for the album that she recorded at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972. Amazing Grace, which featured her old friend James Cleveland and included brief remarks by her father, is Franklin’s greatest musical achievement, as she pays tribute to the gospel tradition that birthed her, with an ailing Ward sitting in the front pew. And yet months later, Franklin was in the studio with Quincy Jones to record a jazz album, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky); she was 30.
Franklin’s adeptness across multiple musical genres was unmatched. At the time of her death she had earned 18 Grammy Awards, recorded 41 studio albums and performed at the inauguration ceremonies of three American presidents, including the nation’s first African American president. Franklin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She had inspired a generation of chart-topping divas, including Whitney Houston and Beyonce´, over a career that spanned 60 years. Franklin was, simply, the greatest American vocalist of the 20th century. n
Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African and African American Studies and the author of several books including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture and Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic.