Once Aretha Franklin found her niche – and it took six years — she revolutionized the role of female vocalist in hit music.
Jerry Wexler — that genius A&R man, one of the most visionary ever — saw it in her — her authentic self — took her away from Columbia, where they had her doing squishy jazz, over to Atlantic, sent her to Rick hall’s gutsy — and unknown — Fame Studios backup band, and unleashed that authenticity in a series of sides that can never be surpassed. Authentic. A voice you could believe in –and did.
There are many triumphs of declaration in Franklin’s oeuvre, in several settings, but none exceeds the drama, intensity, and inspired innovation of “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You).” Add to that masterpiece — a work as revelatory as Louie Armstrong’s “West End Blues” or Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” — these giants of soul music : “Do Right Woman — Do Right man,” her most eloquent soul sermon; “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” her self declaration, as “There Was a Time” had been for James Brown; the back of her church roots “I Say a Little Prayer,” the funky body heave of “Rock Steady,” her cover of the Drifters’ “Spanish Harlem,” “Spirit In the Dark,” “Day Dreaming” — “quiet storm style five years before the fact; and, of course, her anthemic squelch answer version of Otis Redding’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” Quite the eight, wouldn’t you say ?
These songs defined her and, to large extent, confined her. She was now the “Queen of Soul,” and marketing dictates saw that much of her later work was made with queen-dom in mind rather than innovation. She “worked the formula” in “Chain of Fools” and “Think,” two songs well worth excerpting, as many current music makers do, but what’s heard here is Aretha doing her virtuosity for its own sake, copying herself.
The risk-taking, that made “I Never Loved a Man” the outside triumph of that year and time, was gone.
She still had that voice, though, big and ferocious and sparkling bright gorgeous, and it’s all there in her best post-1972 work: collaborations with Bruce Springsteen, the Blues Brothers, Eurythmics, George Michael, George Benson, Elton John, Michael McDonald, even with James Brown. The tactic was pretty obvious : allow these artists’ followings to hear the voice their own idols idolized.
These artists idolized Aretha for very good reason. Her great work entirely changed the parameters of hit music. Gospel had been her roots — her Dad, C. L. Franklin, was a preacher and himself a powerful gospel voice — and gospel singers were her teachers. Was she, their artistic pupil, a greater voice than Rosetta Tharpe, Marion Williams, Dorothy Love Coates, Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson ? Probably not; but these singers operated within their well established, long lived genre: whereas the real Aretha, let loose by the coaxing of Jerry Wexler, created something that had never been. Little wonder that she became as influential a stylist as any artist ever.
Did I say influential ? Monumentally influential, even now. Of female voices this past 50 years, only Diana Ross and Madonna equal her in range and persistence of influence on how female singers present themselves. Aretha let it all hang out. She left nothing on the table. Life is gamble all in, and in her best sides she was all in and demanded that you go all in, too.
This was different from the female singers before her.
Dinah Washington, for example, was tough as nails — a voice like a switchblade – but her persona was defense : raw, lethal Defense.
Billie Holliday was the master of intimate sadness. You empathized, you cared, but you did not give yourself up.
Peggy Lee had Bessie Smith’s dominance and heft. But she played a role, which allowed the audience to step back from full intention. Aretha did not play a role. She was herself. No stepping back from her.
Bessie Smith was a genius of minstrel formality : a. big body voice, a commanding presence, but intimidating. Aretha did not intimidate. She let her vulnerability show, was not troubled by it.
Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942; but she grew up in Detroit, and Detroit remained her home until her dying minute. Whatever her stardom, though she sang in glitzy venues and toured the world, gritty, working-class, impoverished Detroit was her base. She was very much a natural woman.
“R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” made her a political icon for feminists, and for Black women, to the end she remained politically involved: sang for Barack Obama’s inauguration, endorsed Hillary Clinton, and pointedly refused to sing at Mr. Trump’s, had he asked her. (Although she had sung at his casinos. There’s a photo of them together to prove it. Life is strange…) President Obama’s eulogy for Aretha mentions her voice’s significance, from the heart, for all people, but evocative of being Black in America in particular. How could that NOT be ? The genius of the greatest Black-American music is to voice the high ideals and immediate aspirations of all Americans at the same time that it voices the pain and frustrations, determination and triumphs that black Americans uniquely confront. Black musicians had, since before 1860 even, professionally performed all manner of music for all manner of American audiences; it was a given that they performed one thing for Black audiences during the decades of segregation and another thing for white audiences. Who better, then, to blend the common features of the two into one performance for both audiences together, while retaining Black authenticity — indeed, in most cases for audiences that wanted that authenticity, because authenticity surpasses dissimulation ? All the great geniuses of Black American music did this: none more effectively, more powerfully, than Aretha Franklin.
— Deedee Freedberg / Feelin’ the Music