It’s never easy to pen any elocution of one as massive in spirit, presence, performance and delivery as Aretha Franklin. Does one start from how she defined rhythm and blues, the fact that she found her spirit, voice and soul from the tender age of 12, the fact that it was her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, who heard, identified and heeded the call of the singer and artist within her, the fact that she amassed at least 12 honorary doctorate degrees despite being a high school dropout, or being nominated for 44 Grammy awards and actually receiving 18 in one lifetime? Should we start with her being the first woman to have been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Or, should we start at the unique spin that Detroit, which she came to identify as her hometown, is known to bring out in those who have walked its hallowed halls of music? Do we look at the fact that hers was the chosen voice for the inauguration of not one, but three presidents? That President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian award? Or do we look at her advocacy in the Civil Rights movement, for racial equality?
It is a little known fact that Aretha’s father, Rev. Clarence L. Frankln was the one who organized the Detroit Walk of Freedom to Washington back in 1963 and that he was an artist in his own right. Upon reflection, it seems preordained that the Queen of Soul was, in her youth, mentored by the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson. The signature boon to her great talent was unleashed through “Respect” which was released in 1967 and was readily embraced as the battle cry for the civil rights movement. Such serendipity signifies Divine mandates.
President Obama’s remarks in The New Yorker describe Franklin thus: “American history wells up when Aretha sings. Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll – the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
The world heard, as even Queen Elizabeth of England, with her stoic traditions of royalty, seemingly emblazoned in bonds of steel, saw it befitting to set aside for a moment, to pay homage to raw talent, when Buckingham Palace broke tradition to have her orchestrated cover of Otis Redding’s original song “Respect,” played at the changing of the guards, on the day of her funeral.
Such was the gift and power of this iconic being, who no doubt realized her unique gift – beside herself, yet within. One who undoubtedly knew that “presence” was necessary for the embodiment of soul and expression and was abundantly blessed in its conveyance. Aretha was not only bestowed with the gift of song, but the gift of music as well. She was a self-taught pianist.
But hers was not an easy road. Aretha became pregnant at 12 and then again at 14 years old. It must have been pretty challenging trying to eke out a life in the competitive music industry, while going to school and taking care of her babies. So demanding were those responsibilities that she dropped out of high school at 15.
One of her most challenging phases happened in 1979 when her father was shot by burglars at point blank range. He stayed in a coma until he died in 1984. She later lost her brother and manager Cecil, and a sister Carolyn to cancer.
It seems Aretha clearly knew, that nowhere has it ever been said, that when faced with life’s toughest challenges, the option of throwing in the towel and calling it quits is ever available – before the end itself. She kept her privacy, her dignity and her pain and released it through songs with a range that mellowed with maturity and erupted from the deepest crevices of her soul.
Over the years, Aretha Franklin has been bestowed with honorary doctorate degrees from esteemed institutions such as Harvard University, New York University, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Pennsylvania, Berklee College of Music, Bethune Cookman, and Wayne State, to name a few and not to be outdone, the city of Detroit honored Aretha as well, by naming a street in her honor.
The chapter never ends with the death of artists of this magnitude. Aretha’s uncanny ability to raise hairs and the spirit in man has been well recorded. Her remake of songs such as: “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Bridge over Troubled Waters” and the co-written “Natural Woman,” speaks volumes of her dexterity, true artistry and diversity in repertoire of song.
The gift bestowed onto the world through our Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, will live on for many years to come. Heaven weeps with joy for her coming.
Publisher – Kotch Magazine
Aretha Franklin performing on the ‘VH1 Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin’ at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, 4/9/01. The show airs live on VH1 on Tuesday, April 11, 2001 at 9:00PM EST. Photo by Scott Gries/ImageDirect.