Well, we knew this day would come. She had been ill for over a decade, but, still, her power was so overwhelming we simply could not allow ourselves to think about it.
Aretha Franklin died today in Detroit, at the age of 76. You can get the details of her life anywhere, but here’s a few major points. She was born in Tennessee and moved to Detroit when she was five. Shortly thereafter, her father, pastor at the New Bethel Baptist Church, started her singing career as a member of the church choir.
When she turned 18, Aretha “graduated” to pop music, first for Columbia Records with some notable success, but when she was enticed by Atlantic Records’ legendary founder/producer Ahmet Ertegün her that led her to the title “the Queen of Soul.” Think, A Natural Woman, Chain of Fools, Freeway of Love, Rock Steady, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Spirit in the Dark, I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You … I could spend the rest of the day denoting her biggest hits, but I’d never make my deadline. Perhaps – perhaps – her best-known song was R.E.S.P.E.C.T., which truly represented her personality as though it was some sort of musical mirror. The impact of this song has been so great that many people don’t realize it was written by Otis Redding, an astonishingly talented writer/performer in his own right.
I first saw her work live a half-century ago, when I was 18. She was playing to a sold-out crowd at one of Chicago’s larger psychedelic dungeons of the era. The audience was mostly composed of hippies and getting us to stand for 70 minutes was quite a feat in its self. But if the audience was any smaller, we would have been knocked backwards off our feet by the sheer power of her performance. I never met a person who disliked her singing.
One fan was Barack Obama, and Aretha sang at his presidential inauguration. You could feel her pride coming through the television. President Obama most certainly did; Aretha’s performance brought tears to his eyes.
She won about as many awards and honorifics as she had hit singles. President Bush II gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was a Kennedy Center honoree and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement recipient, she was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and that was six years after the singer received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She also received honorary degrees from Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Brown, and many other institutions including a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Wayne State University in her home town of Detroit.
Aretha Franklin was a lot like the character she played in the movie The Blues Brothers: she always stood up for herself, she never took shit from anybody, she did things her way. Some admire Frank Sinatra for those qualities; perhaps more would have seen those same qualities in Aretha had she been a man. But being a woman, Aretha Franklin was – and certainly will continue to be – a major inspiration for women and for men who believe in the sheer beauty of self-determination.
Aretha combined that amazing self-determination with a wonderful sense of humor. For example, seven years ago she beat a parking ticket in New York City (in front of the now late, great Neely’s Barbecue Parlor) by singing acapella for the officer. Then she autographed the ticket.
We won’t be missing the music of this amazing performer. Her work will be around forever. She’s simply undergone a change of status. She was a giant among us.
Now, Aretha Franklin is a legend.