ARETHA FRANKLIN Biography - Other artists & entretainers


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Aretha Franklin Queen of Soul reigns supreme with a heavenly voice and terrestrial passion Sisters and brothers, the subject of today’s sermon is that light of our lives, the Queen of Soul, sister Aretha Franklin. Preach, Reverend! Now in the Scriptures, Luke 11: 33, we are taught, “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden.” Now, y’all know the queen got her start singing in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. People say she left the sacred for the secular, forsook gospel for pop. But, truth is, as her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, said, “Truth is, Aretha hasn’t ever left the church!”


Never left!


Truth is, songs are her ministry. Her voice is her temple. Truth is, her light is shining!


That’s right! That’s right!


Can I get a witness?


American music, like America itself, seems too democratic for any title to endure. Ask almost any rapper or alternative rocker if Elvis is the King of Rock, and all you’ll get is a sneer. Michael Jackson likes to call himself the King of Pop, but we all know the true king of pop is whoever has the No. 1 album in a given week. All told, there’s only one monarch in music whose title has never rung false and still holds up - and that’s Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.


Her reign has been long. Born in 1942 in Memphis, Tenn., she started recording when she was just 14. Since then, she has had 20 No. 1 R. and B. hits and won 17 Grammys. Her breakthrough album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967), was a Top 40 smash. Three decades later, after Motown, after disco, after the Macarena, after innumerable musical trendlets and one-hit wonders, Franklin’s newest album, her critically acclaimed A Rose Is Still a Rose (1998), is another Top 40 smash. Although her output has sometimes been tagged (unfairly, for the most part) as erratic, she has had a major album in every decade of her career, including Amazing Grace (1972) and Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (1985).


Her reign has been storied. She sang at Martin Luther King’s funeral and at William Jefferson Clinton’s Inaugural gala. She has worked with Carole King and Puff Daddy. The Michigan legislature once declared her voice to be one of the state’s natural resources.


But this isn’t about accolades; this is about soul. This is about that glorious mezzo-soprano, the gospel growls, the throaty howls, the girlish vocal tickles, the swoops, the dives, the blue-sky high notes, the blue-sea low notes. Female vocalists don’t get the credit as innovators that male instrumentalists do. They should. Franklin has mastered her instrument as surely as John Coltrane mastered his sax; her vocal technique has been studied and copied by those who came after her, including Chaka Khan in the ’70s and Whitney Houston in the ’80s.


And Franklin’s influence has only grown in the ’90s. The dominant divas of this decade - Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton - are all, musically speaking, Sunday-school students of Aretha’s. The queen still rules: early this year Franklin co-starred in a Divas Live benefit concert on the cable channel VH-1 with some of the most popular young female singers of the ’90s, including Carey and Celine Dion. The younger stars were blown offstage by the force of Franklin’s talent.


Like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, Franklin helped bring spiritual passion into pop music. In 1961 she signed with Columbia, which tried to turn her into a singer of jazzy pop. In 1966 she switched to Atlantic, delved into soul, and began to flourish. Unlike many of her performing peers, Franklin took a strong hand in creating her own sound. Her guiding principle with producers, she says, is “if you’re here to record me, then let’s record me - and not you.”


From the moment she sang Respect - that still famous call for recognition and appreciation - Franklin helped complete the task begun by Billie Holiday and others, converting American pop from a patriarchal monologue into a coed dialogue. Women were no longer just going to stand around and sing about broken hearts; they were going to demand respect, and even spell it out for you if there was some part of that word you didn’t understand. As Franklin declares on Do Right Woman - Do Right Man: “A woman’s … not just a plaything / She’s flesh and blood just like a man.” Respect also became a civil rights anthem. “For black women, Aretha is the voice that made all the unsaid sayable, powerful and lyrical,” the writer Thulani Davis once observed. “She was just more rockin’, more earnest, just plain more down front than the divas of jazz … Aretha let her raggedy edges show, which meant she could be trusted with ours.”


But to hear Franklin’s voice is to hear many voices: she sings not just for black women but for all women. Her pop hit Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves (1985) was a duet, notably, with a white singer, Annie Lennox. Franklin sings not just about the female condition but about the human one. I Say a Little Prayer (1968) and Love Pang (1998) are existential soul, capturing heartache juxtaposed with workaday life - brushing your teeth, drinking morning coffee. By singing of such things, she exalted the mundane, giving a voice, a powerful one, to everyday folks and events.


Franklin is not simply the Queen of Soul; she holds royalty status in the fields of gospel, blues, rock and pop as well. She is a sharp, rhythmically fierce pianist. And though she wrote a number of her hits, including the sexually brazen Dr. Feelgood, she also displayed brilliance in making other people’s compositions her own, such as Curtis Mayfield’s pop gem Something He Can Feel. Or listen to her 1971 gospel-charged take on the Simon and Garfunkel classic Bridge over Troubled Water. That water’s a good deal more troubled when Franklin sings the song; even the bridge seems sturdier. She was the first female inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


In person, Franklin is sly and funny, but has melancholy, magic-drained eyes. The twice-divorced diva’s life has sometimes had the hard, sad stomp of a blues song: in 1979 her father was shot by burglars, fell into a coma and died. Producer Jerry Wexler once wrote, “I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows … anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.”


As social critic Derrick Bell writes in his book Gospel Choirs, one of black music’s earliest functions was to get people through hard times. During slavery, spirituals would sometimes be encoded with secret messages, directions on how to get North to freedom. Franklin’s cryptic hurt serves a similar function; it draws us in, it commands empathy, and it ultimately points us north. Listen to her voice on the prayerful Wholy Holy, spiraling away, taking us away. North out of heartbreak, north out of oppression, north toward where we want to go.