Aretha Franklin was power
It is typical of our frivolity that a decade ago the Queen of Soul made news for wearing a hat. It was a perfectly sensible hat of a sort that millions of women in this country wear to church on Sundays and on other formal occasions, in this case the inauguration of our first black president. The way that legions of white observers fussed about her unremarkable fashion choice made me ashamed to be an American.
This is the only negative thing I have to say upon learning the sad news that Aretha Franklin has died at the age of 76.
Like those of so many of our greatest entertainers, her early life was itinerant. Before the age of 10 she had lived in Memphis, Buffalo, and Detroit, the city in which she died on Thursday and with which she will always be rightly associated. This is despite the fact that she was never signed to the record label that has become synonymous with black music of the era in which she performed.
People capable of mistaking her for a Motown act prove they don't know anything about Aretha or about soul. The genius of the so-called Motown sound was that it distilled pop hit-making into a formula that could be replicated by anyone. Berry Gordy and associates stood for tight songwriting, snappy arrangements, tinselly emotion unobjectionable to the parents of white teenagers — all fine things in their way, but Aretha was interested in something else.
What was that thing? Simply put, autonomy, freedom, femaleness as opposed to femininity. There is, as Germaine Greer pointed out, often nothing especially feminine about being a woman. At Atlantic and, later, at Arista, Aretha was her own artist and, more important, her own woman.
The quality with which I shall always associate Aretha's voice is power. It is not a soft voice. It does not convey a great deal of pain, unlike that of many of her most esteemed predecessors or contemporaries. It rarely even evinces vulnerability. What it brings across, with its magnificent and unfailing energy — an energy that always avoids sounding compulsive on the one hand or manufactured on the other — is simply life. She saw a great deal of life, from New Bethel Baptist Church to New Haven, Connecticut, where she received an honorary doctorate from Yale in 2011. Doctor Franklin gave birth to two children before she was 15 years old and sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., a friend since childhood; she knew what the world is and sang about it.
The other remarkable thing about her is that her instincts for choosing collaborators were nearly always unfailing. Duane Allman's slide leads on her cover of "The Weight" are so clear and forceful that we almost become convinced we are listening to a duet. She brought out the best in, among others, Quincy Jones, whose production of Hey Now (The Other Side of the Sky) in 1973 sounds as fresh and relevant as if it had been released last month, something that is not true even of his work with Michael Jackson.
After a resurgence in 1985 with the platinum-selling Who's Zoomin' Who? her recording career declined. This retreat from the charts does not seem to have been accompanied by any correspondingly serious diminishment of her powers (though she often insisted otherwise). Her voice sounded subdued on her 1998 comeback, "A Rose is Still a Rose," but that seems to me more a result of Lauryn Hill's (now hopelessly dated) production than anything else. Anyone who watched her appearance on behalf of Carole King at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015 knows what Aretha was capable of sounding like even very recently. It is not difficult to make sense of the tears in the eyes of those in the audience, including, it would appear, George Lucas.
In the coming days and weeks her hits — "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)," "Chain of Fools," "Think," "Spanish Harlem," and, of course, "Respect" — will be replayed by millions and, one hopes, discovered by millions more. It is natural. Her hits are the things of which American culture is made, a hundred times more significant than any novel or play or poem of the last half century. But it is on the LPs where I think one can discover something of her real artistry: Soul '69, with a rendition of "Gentle on My Mind" that rivals even Glen Campbell's; This Girl's in Love With You (the haunting organ-driven "Let It Be" with its furious King Curtis solo was recorded from a demo version and issued months before the Beatles single); and Spirit in the Dark, with its extraordinary Franklin-penned originals, including the title track, and at least a dozen others.
In other words, we should listen to her music. Apart from praying for Aretha and her family, I can think of no other way to honor the memory of one who did so much for her people and her country.