Was there a better singer than Aretha Franklin? Not one I ever heard. Not only did the “Queen of Soul” possess the pipes, but she had the improvisational skills to put them to great use on a wide variety of material while also imbuing her performances with heavy doses of passion and sass.
The daughter of the influential Detroit minister and civil rights activist Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha sang in church prior to recording a God-fearing album called Songs of Faith when she was a mere fourteen years old. But she wanted to go “secular,” like her idol, Sam Cooke, did, and in 1967 she scored as an Atlantic Records artist who fused her gospel and bluesy roots with pop and r&b sounds, a fusion that resulted in an astounding string of hits. In that one year alone, Franklin released classics like “Respect,” “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like),” and “Chain of Fools.”
The next year, she trotted out the explosive story song “The House That Jack Built,” the dynamic “See Saw,” and her idiosyncratic version of Dionne Warwick’s hit “I Say a Little Prayer,” which is practically a duet between Aretha and her backups, the Sweet Inspirations (who also sang on the Warwick version). The Inspirations were founded by Cissy Houston, whose daughter, Whitney, in the 1980s, took Aretha’s gospel-based pyrotechnic style and brought it even closer to the mainstream.
Aretha was no stick-thin, smiling Diana Ross (whom I happen to love as well). She was a little pudgy and always flashy, often dressed in fabulous clothes and sporting similarly fabulous hairstyles without ever seeming self-conscious about it; she had the pure talent to change the world’s aesthetics, as all eyes — and ears — were glued to her deeply felt magic. Elvis Presley had borrowed songs from black artists and turned them into hits, but now an African American artist was in the spotlight, using her gifts and influences to scale the charts — and with a revolutionary style, too.
In 1976, she sang a luscious version of “Something He Can Feel” on the soundtrack to Sparkle, a girl-group musical that was later remade with Jordin Sparks and, yes, Whitney Houston. In the Eighties, she got up to date with some Luther Vandross–produced hits like “Jump to It” and “Get It Right,” rollicking numbers in which she seemed to be having a really good time. More of the same followed with the breezy, Narada Michael Walden–produced “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.”
That decade also featured two irresistible duets — the feminist anthem “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” with the fiery Annie Lennox, and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” a Motown-esque duo with an adoring George Michael.
As brilliant as her originals were — like 1970’s bitterly infectious “Don’t Play That Song” — it was on her covers that Aretha got to really dig deep, reinvent, and send chills. Check out her patiently soulful versions of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “What a Fool Believes,” and “It’s My Turn.” She’s the only singer who would make it hard to remember the original songs after you heard her versions.
After her heyday had passed, I saw Aretha in concert and was distressed to notice that she was avoiding certain high notes — they weren’t quite as available to her as they had been previously. She was likely also conserving her energy, which is only natural. By 2014, when she covered Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” her vibrato had become way too tremulous, but there was still power and charisma in her delivery, so you had to give the woman her propers.
Favorite Aretha moments? At the 1998 Grammy Awards, after Luciano Pavarotti had fallen ill, she stepped in and sang “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot — a song Pavarotti was known for lavishing his vocal cords on. The result was exceedingly bizarre, I must say, but ultimately thrilling, and you really had to admire her chutzpah. At Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, she wore an eyeball-grabbing, big-bowed hat and sang “America” (“My country, ’tis of thee”) with a whole lot of feeling, making the president — and all of us — helplessly weep as history was being made.
Yes, the woman could be a diva, and her distaste for air-conditioning — because it would affect her voice — caused many concertgoers to lose weight by shvitzing. But it was worth it to see Lady Soul turn it up. Virtually every note out of her mouth was so influential that even today a lot of pop stars wish they could approximate her sound. There are scores of American Idol–style singers who think they’re being like Aretha by simply belting and trilling and loudly going up and down scales. They need to take another listen and bow down to the lady.