The Queen is dead.
Aretha Louise Franklin, a preacher’s daughter from Memphis who was broadly acclaimed the greatest singer of the last half-century — indeed, one of the greatest singers in the history of American song — died of pancreatic cancer last week at her home in Detroit. She was 76.
And if you are seeking to understand what makes her worthy of those accolades and superlatives, you’re going about it all wrong. Don’t just read this or any other appreciation. Don’t just sit and watch august personages pay homage on the cable news channel.
No, get out your music player and put on “Chain of Fools.” Put on “Freeway of Love” or “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Put on her version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And for goodness sake, put on “Respect.” Do that, and you will understand why she was called — with no hint of irony or crass showbiz hokum — the Queen of Soul.
Barack Obama once put it like this: “American history wells up when Aretha sings.”
Ray Charles said, “I don’t know anybody that can sing a song like Aretha Franklin. Nobody. Period.”
And Rolling Stone observed: “You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.”
That was in a story listing the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” — not in terms of sales or cultural impact, but simply on the basis of pure vocal ability. It was a ranking that included the iconic likes of Etta James, Elton John, Elvis Presley, David Ruffin, Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Patsy Cline. But at the very top of the list sat Aretha.
Franklin signed with Atlantic Records in 1966. She would top the charts with her first single release, the bluesy title song from her first album, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” But it was her next release that would cement her place not simply in music, but in sociocultural history.
“Respect” was written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, the mighty soul man from Stax Records, as a standard-issue slab of Memphis soul. The horns traced curlicues behind Redding’s brawny vocals as he issued a traditionally masculine plea to be taken seriously in his own home. But Franklin subverted and exploded the song, first by simply daring, as a woman, to sing it, appropriating for herself and, by extension, women in general, the role of the aggrieved breadwinner seeking her propers. Except, she didn’t plead. She demanded.
Franklin’s arrangement sweetened the harder edges of Redding’s version, her fiery performance whipped along by a chorus of head-bobbing sass. “Just a little bit,” the background singers trilled, counterpointing her demands for “respect.” And then comes the dramatic break where the music falls away and against a stark silence, Franklin literally spells out what she wants, in case it is not by now abundantly clear: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” The backstory of Franklin’s life at that moment —for six years, she had been in a physically abusive marriage to her first husband Ted White; they would divorce in 1969 — only adds to the drama of the performance.
More than a song about a trifling lover, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” became an anthem for both the civil rights and women’s rights movements. People soon forgot that Otis Redding had ever sung it. Or as he groused good-naturedly, “Respect” was the song that “a girl took away from me.”
And then, there was the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors wherein Franklin performed “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” for Carole King, co-writer of the song and one of the night’s honorees. The performance Franklin gave that night was one for the ages, one she pulled from some deep place to which mere mortals have no access.
King clapped and jumped and seemed at times about to topple off the balcony. President Obama wiped away tears. And then Franklin, who had begun the song seated at her piano shrouded in a mink, stood up to finish the song and dropped the pricey fur to the floor in a gesture of pure, grand dame authority, and it was all over.
Yes, the Queen is dead.
But long live the Queen.