Illustration by Anya Chytrowski
Although America has never had any variation of a monarchy after the Revolutionary War, we’ve still got our royalty. America’s Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, passed away on August 16, 2018 at the age of 76. Aretha wasn’t given the prestigious honor as Queen of Soul just for her voice, but for her connection to humanity as well. She was always gracious. Always caring. Always humble. She pushed soul music, and music as a medium in general, in new directions. A champion for the civil rights of African Americans and women, she was a woman of the people, even being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, the highest government honor that a civilian can acquire. Describing Aretha Franklin as only having released 42 studio albums, won eighteen Grammys, and earned 72 nominations would be an understatement. She deserves our respect.
Aretha Franklin was born March 25, 1942 in Memphis. She began to take piano lessons at age eight, and at age ten was singing solos in her father’s church choir. Her father’s sermons were recorded and released through a record label, giving her connections in the music industry to give her a solid grounding. As Clarence Franklin’s fame increased through his recorded sermons, he would go on tour to give sermons in churches across the country. He brought his daughter with him to open up his tour and give her a chance to sing nationwide, delivering more recognition to her and her musical talents.
At age fourteen she would release her first gospel record using the resources she acquired from her father’s tour. It was at this age that she also gave birth to her first child, and would give birth to her second child the consecutive year. In 1960 she would sign with acclaimed Columbia Records to release two moderately acclaimed albums, but nothing to push her to star status. It wasn’t until she signed with Atlantic Records in 1966 that the age of Aretha would begin.
Within her first sessions with Atlantic, she had recorded her first major single “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” The track reached the top of the R&B and Pop charts, and the hits kept coming, peaking with her No. 1 hit “Respect.”
At this point Aretha was viewed not just as a singer, but a status symbol. In her autobiography, Aretha said: “It was neither my intention nor my plan, but some were saying that in my voice they heard the sound of confidence and self-assurance, they heard the proud history of a people who had been struggling for centuries. I took these compliments to heart and felt deeply humbled and honored by them.”
Her civil rights background extends beyond an anthem. In the 70’s, Franklin offered to pay bail for civil rights leader Angela Davis, saying “Angela Davis must go free… Black people will be free. I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace.”
Although she enjoyed the limelight, her career plateaued in the 70’s with the age of disco, when soul artists like Aretha found trouble keeping up in the new genre.
However, Aretha wouldn’t allow herself to fall into obscurity. Throughout the years, she would reappear on numerous songs with other artists, and still stunned audiences worldwide with her performances.
In 1987, she would become the first woman inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame. In 1998, she would be asked to cover for acclaimed opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, who was too sick to perform for the Grammys, thirty minutes before he was set to perform on stage.
Her performance would become renowned as one of the best televised performances of all time, and was an especially impactful spectacle coming from a soul/gospel background.
However, Aretha’s significance is not just her hit songs and performances, but the recognition she’s received from prestigious leaders. She performed at three presidential inaugurations: Carter, Clinton, and Obama.
Additionally, her reputation permitted her the unique distinction of performing “Nessun Dorma” in front of Pope Francis in 2015, the same song she performed at the 1998 Grammy Awards.
Aretha Franklin’s legacy goes beyond her musical accomplishments, for it is ingrained in American history.
A career spanning over 62 years, her music shaped the national culture and mentality during a time when America needed it most. “Respect” inspired a generation to fight and demand equal treatment with a vigor. Her “Amazing Grace” album reminded people that faith and determination will help them through everything.
Although her voice and style certainly changed significantly in those 62 years, she still maintained the poise and grace that followed her since she was a ten year old girl singing in her father’s local church.
Looking back, if there’s anything we can learn from the Queen of Soul, it’s to always stay true to our identity, and never be afraid to follow our own paths, whatever those may be.