(Much has been written in the last couple of days, all of it better than what you’ll find here. But when a queen dies, you have to weigh in on her passing.)
Her dad was C. L. Franklin, a fiery and famous traveling preacher. C.L. was famous enough that people like Clara Ward and James Cleveland and Sam Cooke hung out at his house. She started travelling with C. L. at twelve, and at sixteen toured with Martin Luther King, Jr. (King and future queen on the same tour; don’t you wish you had been at one of those events?)
At eighteen she decided she wanted to try pop music, and her dad agreed. A young man tried to convince C. L. to sign her with his fledgling Tamla label. Her dad turned him down. The young man was Barry Gordy, who formed the label you’re more familiar with the following year. (I’ll pause here for a moment while everyone tries to imagine a world in which two of the biggest divas of the last sixty years try to inhabit the same space. Forget Gettysburg — that’s an alternative history someone should write a book about.)
In addition to Gordy, C. L. also turned down Sam Cooke, instead signing his daughter to a very lucrative contract (especially for a new artist) at Columbia Records. Her six years at Columbia yielded a couple of R&B hits and some attention (Ebony did an article on her during this period), but not sustained mainstream success.
In 1966, at the tender age of 24, with her contract up at Columbia, she was ready for a change. She decided Atlantic records was to be her new home. They promptly shipped her to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record at the appropriately-named FAME studios. If anyone says they saw what was coming, they’re lying.
The first single on the air was good, maybe better than anything she’d done before. “I Never Loved A Man” was a #1 R&B single, and, more importantly, a top-ten Billboard Hot 100 song. The B-side was also an R&B hit. But this was just the appetizer. As the last song on the album that would come out of the sessions would say, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
The next single blew the doors off. Of everything. A cover of an Otis Redding hit that she re-arranged, with her sisters singing “sock it to me” in the background years before Laugh-In would make it famous, the record was an instant #1 crossover hit.1 And an anthem. For women. For a Civil Rights movement still in the throes of trying to right three centuries of wrong. The Queen was anointed.
The Recording Academy wasted no time creating a “Best Female R&B Performance” category so they could hand her a Grammy the next year. She went on to win another seven in a row after that one, until finally someone else won for a song the Queen had turned down.
Popular music went in a different direction, and she went quiet for a few years. Then a couple of Saturday Night Live guys decided to spotlight R&B in a musical comedy derived from a sketch on their show. They cast a number of R&B greats (James Brown, Ray Charles). And… the Queen. Her five minutes in Blues Brothers electrified the screen, and reminded people there was better music than the junk they were listening to at the time. Reinvigorated, she would go on to win three more Grammies, the last for one of the only listenable songs to come out of the disastrous decade that was disco.2
But if you really want to know about Aretha Franklin, watch her 2015 Kennedy Center performance when she sang the song Kennedy inductee Carol King (along with co-writer Gerry Goffin) wrote specifically for her. The Queen was 73, an age when most voices have lost their range, their timbre, their pitch, and their energy. (Listened to Billy Joel or Elton lately? Yeah.) She walked out in a coat that decimated an entire mink farm somewhere, sat down at the piano, and proceeded to change the lives of everyone present. No one bragged, “I saw George Lucas!” or “I met the president!” at the end of the night. They were all saying, or more probably yelling, the same thing.
“I heard the Queen live!”
(Don’t miss the reaction shots of Carol King—her jaw drop when she realizes Aretha’s going to play as well as sing, and several others of pure ecstasy during the performance. A reminder: King wrote the song, and sang it on her Tapestry album that was on the best seller lists for six years straight. Carol King is perhaps the most accomplished female singer/songwriter of her generation, but she knows a Queen when she hears one.)
There was only one Queen of Soul. I doubt there will ever be another. In closing, there is, of course, only one thing left to be said.