Remembering Aretha Franklin: The Amazing Grace of our Queen of Soul
Sixty years ago, Ralph Ellison wrote these words about Mahalia Jackson in 1958: “There are certain women singers who possess, beyond all the boundaries of our admiration for their art, an uncanny power to evoke our love.” If he were writing a few years later, he could just as easily have been writing about Aretha Franklin. Franklin’s powerful, soaring, vocals, her dazzling command of the stage during her performances, her forcefully intimate piano playing — and her powerful and often complexly gorgeous skill is often overlooked; just listen to her roll those chords and her flourishes on the keys on Amazing Grace — and her respect for other artists and their music evoke the uncanny power of love Ellison describes.
Everybody loves Aretha Franklin, and everybody has a favorite Aretha Franklin song, a record that recalls for them a first love, a sense of loss, a disappointment in life, a reaffirmation of faith, or maybe, just maybe, an overwhelming feeling of the power of music to transcend the mundane.
Teresa Williams, who’s sung with Levon Helm and others and who with her husband, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, has released two albums, talks about Aretha:
“Aretha. Aretha is Mt. Rushmore for a singer. I can’t even articulate how massive an influence she is. I always loved that, like a lot of singers, she started in church. Her singing drips with that — there’s no wall between what she’s feeling and what the audience is getting. Her soul is full and she shares that fullness with us.
“When I was dating Larry,” Williams recalls, “I was playing Aretha over and over and over. My favorites are probably the same as everyone else’s. We were doing ‘Do Right Woman’ some back then. That’s a favorite — she got it right. When Larry played the Grammy’s with Dylan … my takeaway from that night was that Aretha subbed for Pavarotti! I wasn’t brought up to be too impressed with celebrity, but afterwards I stood in the corridor backstage as she passed through: the real, live Queen Aretha Franklin! I stood in the presence of greatness.”
Soul singer Christine Ohlman, who is the singer for the Saturday Night Live Band, shares her thought about Franklin and her music: “For as long as I can remember, there has been Aretha. She lives, she reigns … it’s all one and the same. The true queen. Only when I began studying and collecting music full-time did I discover a vinyl LP of her recordings as a 14-year old in her father’s Detroit church. On a broken-reel-to-reel-tape track, ‘Yield Not To Temptation,’ she springs, full-throated from the ether, her singing and piano playing equally superb on a snippet that has left me forever wanting more. Because I so bow down to her as a pianist, my favorite cuts are the ones where she holds complete sway on the 88s … ‘Don’t Play That Song For Me,’ ‘I Say A Little Prayer,’ ‘Til You Come Back To Me.’ As vocalist with the SNL Band, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her in our Studio 8H, and man, what a thrill, always, to hear that voice. She lives, she reigns.”
When the news came on Sunday that Franklin was gravely ill, and then today that she had passed away, we all pulled out our albums, or pulled up our digital playlists and dropped the needle or pressed play on our favorites, listening to her gospel albums or very early songs on her first secular album, Aretha in Person with the Ray Bryant Combo (1961), where you can hear already her gift for phrasing and her control over her vocal gift on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Even that early in her career she’s able to send shivers up our spines as she slowly extends her voice from the soft, quiet opening verses to the blues shouting on the song’s final chorus. We can hear echoes of Franklin’s most recognized soul songs in her version of “Sweet Lover,” a blues vamp on which her vocals mimic the lead riffs of the guitar; what’s always been astonishing about Franklin, and we can hear it on this song, is the purity of tone she’s able to maintain in her vocals. No matter how down and dirty she gets, she never slurs the lyrics, and she’s able to move from low registers to higher ones without ever losing that crystalline tone.
It’s that voice: What we love about Franklin is her way with a song and the many unforgettable vocal memories she’s given us. She developed that vocal gift growing up in her father’s church and singing gospel, and you can hear already the control she brings to her vocals on her first album, Songs of Faith (1956), cut when she was 14, and listen to the development of her voice on one of her first hits, “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” and another early song “Nobody Like You,” which contains within in it the vocal structure she brings to a later hit, “Oh Me, Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby).” Franklin performed all her songs effortlessly, and her interpretations of songs from Jimmy Webb’s “Gentle on My Mind” and Elton John’s “Border Song (Holy Moses)” showcased her thrilling ability to carry a song to the heights of its power. She often discovered notes in a song that the original artists never could imagine were there, and she made those songs her own — and ours — in spectacular ways.
Franklin’s story is already well known, of course. She was born in Memphis, but grew up in Detroit; she sang gospel in her father’s church when she was a child, and by the time she was 14 she had made her first album. When she turned 18, she declared to her father that she wanted to follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke — she sang at the same shows with Cooke and his group, The Soul Stirrers — and carry her talents from gospel music to popular music. She signed with Columbia Records in 1960, where her first album, Aretha in Person with the Ray Bryant Combo,met with modest success. Seven years later, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records, where she had her greatest successes, hitting the charts with the songs with she’s most often associated — her version of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You),” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” among others. Even though she remained at Atlantic after her producer Jerry Wexler left, her albums didn’t fare well, and she left the label in 1979.
Her later career was marked by various health challenges, difficulties with family, and dramatic swings in her artistic successes. While her fans continued to welcome a new album by Aretha Franklin, her music grew more uneven in the 1980s and 1990s, even though she never lost her signature pure, commanding vocal sound, and she continued to release new albums into the 21st century. Franklin scored hits with “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” and she made an appearance in the Blues Brothers and on the TV show A Different World. Franklin sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, and she performed Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center in 2015 when King received a Kennedy Center Honor for that year. In her career, Franklin won 18 Grammy Awards, sold 8.8 million albums — and counting — and charted 73 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and she has left us with some of soul’s most iconic albums.
While every one of her albums contains gems, two albums from the early 1970s — both live albums — capture Franklin at her best. Franklin was the first soul artist to headline at Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore West, and her album, Aretha Live at Fillmore West, remains one of the best live albums ever recorded, for it captures Franklin’s dynamic vocals, her stunning, energetic performance, and her fluid piano work. Over three nights in February 1971, King Curtis and his band the Kingpins (Cornell Dupree on guitar, Bernard Purdie on drums, Jerry Jemmott on bass, Billy Preston on organ) and the Memphis Horns joined Franklin, who played a Fender Rhodes on several of the songs, for several frenetic, joyous shows. The album kicks off with a raucous and propulsive version of “Respect,” in the middle of which Franklin asks the audience to do just one thing: relax and just to feel good. She promises that when “you leave here you will have enjoyed this show more than any in your recent memory.” Franklin delivers soulful versions of Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and Bread’s “Make It with You,” among others. The highlight of the three-night run is Ray Charles joining Franklin to sing and play piano on her song “Spirit in the Dark.” As the song finishes, she calls him the Right Reverend Ray Charles. Aretha Live at the Fillmore captures Franklin at the pinnacle of her career, illustrating how indescribable her musical gift is. Her performances still leave us speechless.
Franklin released Amazing Grace, her other classic album, just over one year later, in June 1972.
Robert M. Marovich, author of A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music, recalls his first gig writing about gospel music in the late 1990s for Gary Joneson’s now-defunct BluesWEB. “It was my job to alert his readers to important gospel recordings from the past and present,” he says. “Among the first ten records I featured on BluesWEB was ‘How I Got Over,’ from Aretha Franklin’s 1972 Amazing Grace album.” “Aretha captivated me with how she could weave melodic phrases under, over, and around the Southern California Community Choir,” says Marovich. “It reminded me of a comment once made about Louis Armstrong: that he made any group he performed with work harder and sound better than it ever did without him. It proved equally true for Aretha Franklin and the Southern California Community Choir. Certainly no shrinking violet when it came to robust harmonies, the choir nevertheless worked harder and sounded better than they ever did, or would, when Aretha was its lead singer on ‘How I Got Over.’ To this day, I consider Aretha and Southern Cal’s “How I Got Over” one of the essential gospel recordings of the 20th century.”
Amazing Grace sold over two million albums in the United States, and in 1973 she won the Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance. Recorded in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in January 1972, Amazing Grace showcases not only Franklin’s gospel roots but also her command of vocal range and phrasing. She’s a soul stirrer, exciting her audience and getting them on their feet, shouting with them, encouraging them to sing and shout and to give their souls to the Master, as she sings in “Give Yourself to Jesus.” The moans of the blues carry into the aching tenderness of a song like “Give Yourself to Jesus,” into which she slips the music of “God Will Take Care of You.” Franklin demonstrates her brilliance when she blends the musical themes of two songs that have the same musical structure into the medley of “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Her version of “Amazing Grace” features her lyrical piano playing, as she opens the hymn with a moan that’s backed by the choir; she then draws out the lines of the song’s first verse in a sparse way as she plays call and response with the notes of the piano. As she moves into the second verse, there’s this moment where the congregation begins to shout with acclamation and to shout in call and response to her vocals. If you can listen to only one Aretha Franklin song, this should be it: it illustrates every feature of Franklin’s artistry. No other song demonstrates the range of her voice, her ability to get inside of notes and stretch them to wrench every emotion out of listeners, her brilliant piano playing, and her devotion to the power of music to evoke love.