Asked whether she is aware of her stature as a singer, Aretha Franklin takes the high and modest road.
“That’s nice to hear and something to be proud of,” she told The Star on Thursday, “but really I’m just thankful for the voice I have. I’m thankful for the gifts God has given me.”
Those gifts have earned her a bounty of gaudy praise and a long list of honors and awards.
She has won 18 Grammys and two honorary Grammys and has recorded almost two dozen top 10 singles. In 1968, she sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.; in 2009, she sang at the inauguration of Barack Obama. In 1987, she became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1999, she received a National Medal of Arts.
And in November 2008, the writers and editors at Rolling Stone put her atop the auspicious list of the 100 greatest singers of all time.
Such lists are typically compiled to arouse debate and dissent. But since somebody has to finish first in such a subjective project, it might as well be Franklin. Forget music writers and editors. Ask those who have worked with her or those she has inspired.
“No one can copy her,” producer Jerry Wexler once said. “She’s all alone in her greatness.”
In her testimonial to Franklin for the 100 greatest list, Mary J. Blige wrote: “When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.”
Plenty of women who sing share that sentiment.
“Aretha is dear to me in so many ways,” said jazz singer Lisa Henry, a Kansas City native and winner of the 1994 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. “I grew up hearing her music in my house from a young age. Her raw emotion and uncompromising soul seeped into my spirit, even as a young girl. Whenever a song needed some ‘soul,’ I would immediately think of Aretha Franklin.”
Tuesday night, Franklin will perform at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
“I will sing the hits, all the big hits, the way people remember them,” she said. “I’ll do some things off the ‘Sparkle’ album, produced by Curtis Mayfield. And I like surprises, so there will be some surprises.”
Franklin, who turned 70 in March and who spent much of 2011 recovering from an undisclosed illness, is still a powerful and dexterous singer, one who can tap into a wealth of styles and move an audience to tears. She can also still demonstrate why so many singers look to her for inspiration, though some can’t quite explain the spell she casts over them.‘Celestial’
Henry saw evidence of Franklin’s potency as a live performer in September, when she took part in a tribute to Franklin at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and performed alongside Chaka Khan, Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
“We sang a medley of (her) hits to the Queen of Soul herself,” Henry said. “After we finished, she graced us all with an amazing rendition of ‘Moody’s Mood for Love.’ It’s a known fact that Aretha Franklin can sing anything, and to hear her sing James Moody’s immortal tune just left everyone in the audience and backstage speechless. I remember standing next to Kurt Elling, and we both agreed: ‘That’s how you sing
“I’d heard her on records all of my life, but hearing her live was something altogether different. Some of us backstage stood motionless. Some of us were crying, the type of crying you do when you know what you are hearing is celestial, on a level you’ll never fully be able to comprehend, as if God himself were allowing us mere mortals to witness his best angel singing.”
God comes up a lot in discussions of Franklin and her transcendent voice. Blige also wrote: “You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God.”
Such references are apt. Her father, the Rev. C.I. Franklin, was a nationally known preacher and civil rights activist, and many of the great gospel singers, like Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson, were in her presence during her childhood. He was also a gifted singer.
“My dad coached me a little on phrasing and things like that,” Franklin said. “He was a very good singer himself. He would have given Nat Cole and Billy Eckstine a run for their money if he’d gone that course.”
Her first public performance was as a 14-year-old at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father was pastor. One of her earliest mentors was gospel singer Clara Ward of the Ward Sisters. “She had a very moving, soulful voice, a very natural gift,” Franklin said. “She was truly one of the best of her day.”
Gospel music remains deep in her roots. In a review of a show at Radio City Music Hall in February, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff wrote: “The 90-minute show had unusual pacing: It revved high nearly all the way through. It felt almost insured, fail safe. But those gospel codas — on ‘Natural Woman,’ ‘Day Dreaming,’ ‘I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You’ and Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ — guided and enlivened Ms. Franklin’s performance. When they were happening or about to happen, she was most at home.”‘In the moment’
But Wexler, who produced some of Franklin’s biggest hits, told Rolling Stone that her gospel background isn’t what makes Franklin so extraordinary.
“Most African-American singers get their musical training in church,” he said. “Training can give you form, can give you tradition, can give you cadence. When genius gets good training, it can expedite the process. But training isn’t genius. Genius is who she is.”
And that genius showed itself early. Four years after her first public performance, Franklin signed with Columbia Records, where producer John Hammond steered her toward jazz. Even as an 18-year-old, she exhibited something extraordinary and refined.
“(Hammond) had the idea to blend Franklin’s declarative gospel DNA with jazz,” Dave Hoekstra wrote in a Chicago Sun-Times story about Franklin, her father’s church and its roots in her music. “He produced her debut record, ‘Aretha (With the Ray Bryant Combo).’ She displays uncanny poise from the jump. The sultry blues phrasing on ‘All Night Long’ is deeply sophisticated, especially when compared to today’s 18-year-old voices.”
That uncanny sophistication only blossomed, especially as she moved on from Columbia to Atlantic, where she showed off yet another facet of her talent: her piano playing. That was also an attraction to up-and-coming singers.
“Aretha Franklin has greatly influenced me as both a singer and piano player, from the time I was first listening to my sister’s records in grade school,” Kansas City native Kelley Hunt said. “The thing that I was immediately drawn to was her all-out approach to singing, or ‘whole-souled’ way of expressing herself. As a piano player, I was also inspired by her accompanying herself on the piano, both in live performance and on the groundbreaking recordings she did with Jerry Wexler in Muscle Shoals.”
Julia Othmer, a singer/songwriter from Kansas City now living in Los Angeles, said, “I ran into someone who had played with her in the ’60s in New York City. I asked him what he remembered of those nights. He said she would sit down behind the piano and not only sing her heart out, but she was also constantly shifting the key and arrangement of songs, challenging the adaptability of her fellow musicians. The depth and spectrum of her musical ability is truly awe-inspiring.”
“I don’t think Columbia let her play the piano much,” Wexler told Rolling Stone. “She was a brilliant pianist. It is part of her genius.”
Her singing, however, is unparalleled. So much of what Franklin does with her voice is innate, almost inexplicable, even among those who also sing for a living.
“Her phrasing, poise, dexterity, control and emotional awareness is almost as amazing as her natural tone, which is something you can’t learn,” said jazz vocalist Megan Birdsall, a former Kansas Citian now spending much of her time in Nashville. “She is a blessing.”
“The first time I heard ‘Ain’t No Way,’ I cried,” said Krystle Warren, a singer/songwriter and graduate of the Paseo Academy, now living in Paris. “Aretha doesn’t inspire me as a vocalist so much as moves me as a music lover. Besides, what she does with her voice is impossible to re-create.”
As much as any of her songs, “Ain’t No Way” is a shining example of the spectacle that is Aretha Franklin’s voice, which conveys an extraordinary range of emotions for more than four minutes. She begins in a state of simmering resignation and slowly ignites into a visceral and naked expression of defiance, exasperation and despair. It’s a spine-tingling display of power and elegance, as operatic as much as anything.
In March, on his blog “Operavore” at WQXR.org, music writer and opera aficionado Fred Plotkin devoted the third of a three-part series on opera divas to Franklin. He minces no words in praising her and in so doing gets at how she sings and why she affects people the way she does.
“Aretha Franklin is different from you and me,” he said. “She sings music across an astounding spectrum in ways that never cease to thrill anyone with a sense of her gifts.
“She also reaches people who are unmusical but viscerally connect with what she is expressing. She has one of the greatest voices of all time. Her whole being seems a conduit for all kinds of musical ideas. She plays the piano in such a way that it provides counterpoint to what she is singing and lets her piano lead her singing in directions that perhaps even she did not expect.
“Part of Aretha’s magic comes in taking her voice and her singing and connecting herself to a song at the very moment she performs it. She almost always employs perfect diction and, when she does not, it is an artistic choice rather than a shortcoming.
“This is why we know most of her songs so well. There is almost never affectation. She is always entirely in the moment and is wholly connected to the words and music in a way that few singers in any genre achieve.”
He defends her inclusion in his opera series by reminding his readers of the time Franklin filled in at the 1998 Grammy Awards show at the very last minute for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti. She sang the aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot.”
“With 22 minutes notice, Aretha arrived and sang the aria,” Plotkin wrote. “It is not traditional, and she did not have time to learn the meaning of the words, and yet it is so extraordinary because it is inimitable, and she gets right to the core of the music — in Luciano’s original key!”
She is fluent in many styles, yet none is her favorite, Franklin said. “I don’t really prefer any one style,” she said, “I love and appreciate them all. I just love good music. And I love to sing.”