Somebody somewhere once asked the human embodiment of American soul music how she would define American soul music. Aretha Franklin replied, “Being able to bring to the surface that which is happening inside.”
Sounds about right. That ability — to externalize humanity in melody — made Franklin one the most pivotal vocalists of the 20th century, the same way it made her rendition of Dinah Washington’s “Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning” from 1964 seem almost funny. Listen to how Franklin shakes out the word “feel” over the course of this song, first like a dinner napkin, then like a beach towel, then like a bedsheet. After five minutes, everybody knows exactly how she feels this morning.
Franklin — who died Thursday at age 76 — didn’t invent the notion that singing should expose something profound about the singer, but she did show us how it’s done, freighting her words with maximum emotion and routing her syllables through two dozen different notes in a single exhalation. Oftentimes, when we talk about what “good singing” sounds like, we’re unthinkingly talking about her. Imagine the strange frustration of being that influential. Your big ideas become the air we breathe.
And who felt that Aretha Franklin hadn’t been properly recognized in the final decades of her life? Aretha Franklin, for one. Years ago, she told her biographer David Ritz that the media hadn’t been paying enough attention to all the trophies and medals being thrown at her, so it was time to type up another book. Ritz went ahead and penned his second Franklin biography, 2014’s “Respect,” but this time, without his subject’s input.
Instead, Franklin’s friends and family tell the story of a grief-stunned child whose mother died of a heart attack when Franklin was a child; the story of a prodigious teenage gospel singer who had given birth to two children when she was a teen; the story of an ascendant pop star who suffered abuse at the hand of her husband-manager; the story of an era-defining artist who, outside of her music, kept her anguish entirely to herself. As longtime producer Jerry Wexler once told Ritz, “She was a woman who suffered silently.”
But when her music first erupted into the wider American consciousness in the late 1960s, all the masses really knew about Franklin was that she was young, black and female — and considering the times, that made everything Franklin was surfacing feel radical. The vastness of expression in her voice was equal parts paralyzing and galvanizing. It asked the world to think. It demanded respect. It quickly became a symbol of the civil rights movement, and after that, a sonic emblem of American progress and virtue — the yearning sound of who we still hope to become.
“Thanks to her example, women vocalists of all races were allowed a freedom, a chance at uninhibited transcendence,” gospel scholar Anthony Heilbut wrote, adding that Franklin’s influence, of course, stretched beyond music. “She introduced forms of self-representation that would profoundly change the way black women lived in the world.”
What would Whitney Houston, or Mariah Carey, or Mary J. Blige, or Beyoncé have done with their voices were it not for all of Franklin’s impossible skywriting? How about Luther Vandross, or Boyz II Men, or Usher? And, really, what would your community talent show sound like without singers summoning the courage to take their words on Aretha-style roller coaster rides? Would karaoke night ever have been infused with an aura of the sublime?
What set Franklin apart from anyone and everyone who tried to trace her contours was her deep study of gospel music, and her finest recordings will never let you forget it. Yes, 1972’s “Amazing Grace” deserves to be compared to everything Michelangelo ever painted, but in the years that followed, whenever Franklin rubbed her godly melisma against new grooves (especially on “Sparkle” and “Almighty Fire” — two albums she cut with Curtis Mayfield in the ’70s), you could hear that Holy Spirit stuff doing important new work.
Franklin continued to chase the latest pop styles into the ’80s and across the ’90s, but once the 21st century got underway, she finally figured out that her relevance had always been rooted in the consecrating power of her voice. She sang at the funeral for Rosa Parks in 2005, and at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in 2011. I was fortunate enough hear her sing twice in 2009 — first, alongside a crowd of nearly 2 million at Barack Obama’s first inauguration, and again, months later, at the opening of a modest, 500-seat theater at a community college in suburban Maryland.
She sounded better at the community college — a booking that felt absurd at the time, but remains beautiful in hindsight, as if this giant of American song had made it her duty to travel from town to town, blessing every little corner of the republic. Maybe that was the idea. Maybe every space is sacred, every moment holy. If Aretha Franklin’s voice doesn’t make you believe in God, it should at least make you believe in that.