Drenched in glory: how Aretha gave voice to embattled black women – and transformed a nation

From her gospel roots, Aretha Franklin created the sound of the resistance, when it was most needed. Author Daphne A Brooks celebrates a spiritual and creative genius

The Queen of Soul: a life in pictures

The woman with the most million-selling singles of any female artist (14). The woman with 10 No 1 R&B albums (more than any other artist). The woman decorated with the presidential medal of freedom. The first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The artist ranked as the greatest singer of the rock era by Rolling Stone. The woman who began, by the late 1960s, to dominate the pop charts in such a commanding way that the Recording Academy had to create a new Grammy award: best rhythm and blues recording, female. From 1968 to 1988, Aretha Franklin would reign “as the most-awarded female singer in Grammy history”, writes Mark Bego in his biography The Queen of Soul. The Greatest of All Time who begat Whitney and Lauryn Hill, Beyoncé and Adele. She remains one of the most critically lionised figures ever to walk the pop landscape.

Above all else, however, Franklin will always be the teacher and the teller, the preacher as well as the choir soloist – all rolled into one. Her roots are the key to her genius. Born the fourth of five siblings in 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, in the midst of African America’s great migration, Franklin was brought up in Detroit by her father, the renowned Baptist minister CL Franklin, and her mother Barbara, who moved out of the home when Franklin was young.

A self-taught, virtuosic church pianist, she began to sing in her early teens and grew up in a household bustling with cultural activity as the civil rights era began to unfold in the 1950s. It was also a home populated with music superstars: gospel luminaries Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward; crossover pop crooner Nat King Cole; Franklin’s idol, “the Queen of the Blues” herself, Dinah Washington. All were drawn to the mighty Rev Franklin’s home and made an impression on the young queen in waiting.

Franklin in 1965.
Unprecedented potency … Franklin in 1965. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The influence of her beloved father – both in Franklin’s life and in the 1950s black activist community – cannot be overstated. A superstar preacher of his generation, he possessed a legendary, heated and propulsive style of sermonising that resonated with his daughter.

This brand of preaching – its temporal shifts, fluctuations in volume, pregnant pauses, fervent exhortations and contemplative pacing – all come to bear on Franklin’s late-60s soul. But it was a sound she would have to work for and towards: cutting her first gospel album at 14, she signed to Columbia Records and moved to New York at 18, hitting the magical turning point in her career at the age of 24.

The sum of all that study, that apprenticing, that vision, is evident during the remarkable Concertgebouw performance she gave in Amsterdam in 1968. She delivered her own version of a secular sermon, Dr Feelgood, before a giddy Dutch crowd. The cliches that have accrued over the years about Franklin’s mastery of soul singing, the laziness and ease with which people reference how “she showed us all the meaning of ‘Respect’”, do not do justice to the depth and complexity coursing through this performance, one that encapsulates the fundamental potency of her extraordinary gifts as an artist, unmatched by her rivals, unprecedented on the pop scene even in an era dazzled by, for instance, her elegant fellow Detroiters, the Supremes.

Franklin performs Dr Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business) at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, 28 April 1968 – video

Accompanying herself, as she would often masterfully do, she uses the piano to create high drama. It knocks insistently at the door and Franklin the vocalist walks right through it, pacing deliberately and pausing to let the opening verses – the opening proclamations of defiance and autonomy – hang in the air and accrue weight and suggestion: “I don’t want nobody sittin’ around me and my man / I tell ya I don’t want nobody always … sittin’ right there … just lookin’ at me and my man / Be it my mother, my brother, my father or my sister … would you believe / I get / Put on some clothes / Go out and help him find somebody for their self if I can …” Franklin, the independent woman, establishes the boundaries of privacy and polices them fiercely on what would become one of the classic songs from her repertoire, subtitled “Love is a serious business”. She plays a wicked, lightning-quick round of black vernacular coding, letting her listeners know that while you can’t stay up in here delivering judgment about her love life, she will gladly go out and help you find a lover of your own. Dense, rich statements are tightly wound and abundant throughout her performance, offering us a portrait of an artist who is also a theorist of womanly desire.

The marvel and wonder of Dr Aretha Franklin (she received many honorary degrees, including one from Princeton in 2012), and the reason we mourn her death so deeply, is that she taught us so much about the preciousness of our emotions, our inner worlds and desires. She dared to voice and make public the nuanced, emotionally heterogeneous interiority of black womanhood, becoming a conduit for articulating the beauty and sensuousness, the rage and the despair, the sadness as well as the joy of black life transduced through African American female musicianship. She turned the “vocal run” itself into a thousand miles of freedom. The intelligence of her melisma, a kind of singing in which notes upon notes are strung together into one syllable, lifted that musical gesture out of the black church and planted it firmly in the mainstream, transforming the style of popular singing.

Franklin with one of her 20 Grammy awards in March 1975.
Franklin with one of her 20 Grammy awards in March 1975. Photograph: AP

When it is used most effectively, the melisma exudes sheer visceral power and can ignite existential catharsis. It suggests limitless emotional revelation and spiritual reckoning. Franklin took it to new heights. In her hands, form was also content that put a sly, critical twist on a song. If, lyrically, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) is at its core a lament about romantic abjection and, startlingly to some, about sexual submission as well (“You’re a no good heartbreaker / You’re a liar and you’re a cheat / And I don’t know why / I let you do these things to me …”), if Franklin sings a tale of love sickness as old as Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues, the form – how she audibly attacks the song itself – was a pop revelation. Our heroine sounds out the agony of unquenchable desire and couples it with astounding assertiveness. Her labour, her movement, her action become the subject of the song. Drenched in glory, she triumphs over and through the oppressiveness of the lyrics. She made her labouring body a central character in her music.

By contrast, the well-meaning Christinas and Arianas, the endless parade of Idol and Voice contestants, have treated her legacy like an Olympic decathlon record to be broken, a statement of athleticism rather than a lesson in gripping storytelling through song. Only a glorious few in our era have even come close to conveying the intensity of self-knowledge that Franklin was able to translate into sound.

Fearless Franklin put her whole self on the line and in the song. In a 1968 Downbeat magazine interview, she discussed using her physicality as an intermediary instrument between the piano and her vocals: “I should sing every day like a dancer practises … If I started doing my exercises and singing from my stomach, I wouldn’t have so many problems. But I forget. I’ll do it at the piano to get that big push, but sitting out there you sound all right but you don’t look so good when you sing that way. I mean, you don’t look like a Marilyn Monroe, profile-wise! [She laughed.] And that’s how I get into trouble because unless I’m sitting at the piano, you know, relaxed, I’ll sing from up here [she indicated her throat] all the time.”

Franklin performing at Chicago’s Cook County jail, June 1972.
Franklin performing at Chicago’s Cook County jail, June 1972. Photograph: Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

Playfully, she addresses the familiar pressures of being a female pop artist and negotiating the demands of certain gender conventions. But she also shrewdly recognises the ways that she might use that same body as an instrument to, in the words of the philosopher Fred Moten, rewrite the “long history” of black folks being exploited in the western world.

From this standpoint, we might think about the cultural revolution that Franklin led at a pivotal point in the long black freedom struggle. Hers was a kind of reform that affected the masses. To invoke the wondrous poet Nikki Giovanni in her sharp and poignant 1968 Poem for Aretha, she was the one who “undoubtedly put everyone on notice”. She provided the soundtrack to the resistance that shook and transformed a nation. We might think of her as the fearless sonic analogue to the likes of freedom fighters such as Fannie Lou Hamer, whose fortitude in the face of white supremacist violence stirred the movement. Franklin’s music was the salve, a source of repair for the embattled black woman’s body in the public sphere.

Franklin’s last performance, at the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s 25th Anniversary Gala, New York City, 7 November 2017.
Franklin’s last performance, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, on 7 November 2017. Photograph: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP

From her stardust days as a teen ingenue belting her way through the American songbook on her early, underrated Columbia recordings, to her house-wrecking, historic three-night stand at San Francisco’s hallowed Fillmore West (where she would, in 1971, become the first African American woman to headline shows at that rock’n’roll temple), on to the sanctuary of New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles in 1972 where she recorded Amazing Grace, described by many as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, and rolling into the 80s as she dropped hits (Freeway of Love; Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves, with Annie Lennox), Franklin masterfully, artfully sounded out the rhythmic interiors of modern black womanhood to the beat of history.

As not just a vocalist and a pianist but also a songwriter (having co-authored hits such as Dr Feelgood, Since You’ve Been Gone, Think, as well as her own Call Me), an arranger and eventually a producer of her own work, Aretha Franklin pioneered and innovated a kind of palpable musicality that called on listeners to respond to her immanent humanity and to, in turn, discover their own. Her soul is the one that changed us for good.


Daphne A Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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