The Queen of Soul

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The music of Aretha Franklin has endured in the hearts of people across the world since the early 1960s. In the month of her 80th birth anniversary, we retrace the late legendary singer’s journey, right from her gospel beginnings to the singular role she played in defining the golden age of soul.

Aretha Franklin’s body of work is timeless. Her music has left an indelible mark on generations and will, unquestionably, impact those to come. Mirroring a life that had more than its fair share of troubles, her powerful songs channelled her own experiences of love and heartbreak, stardom and setbacks. With a recording career that spanned over half a century, Franklin’s music spoke to both the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. Among the most distinctive voices of our time, hers boasted an astonishingly powerful vocal range. Today, the ‘Queen of Soul’ lives on through her music. This month, two concerts at the NCPA will celebrate the works of Franklin and a host of other powerful women who have left their mark on the world. The first is a Women’s Day special on 5th March, led by vocal powerhouses Samantha Noella, Shazneen Arethna, Suzanne D’mello and Eden Alexander, backed by Shanelle Ferreira and Shanaya Sequeira and an exquisite band to match. Later, on 25th March, Franklin’s birth anniversary, the soulful Keshia B will pay tribute to the icon of soul along with some of the world’s greatest female artistes. We look back at the life of the iconic singer, songwriter and pianist.

Finding her voice

Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1942 to the influential pastor and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin and Barbara, a gospel singer and pianist. Franklin displayed prodigious talent as a child. But just as her affinity for singing started young, so did a life of turmoil. She was just six when her mother left the family due to a troubled marriage with the pastor, and almost ten when her mother succumbed to a heart attack. Living in the Franklin home in Detroit, she learned how to play the piano by ear and was encouraged by her father to sing. Not long after that, she started singing solos at New Bethel Baptist Church where the pastor had gained a reputation for his powerful sermons. When her father began to manage her, Franklin, on the brink of teenagehood, started to travel with him to gospel programmes across America. She would soon go on to gain recognition for her vocal prowess. It was evident that the influence of gospel greats like Clara Ward and James Cleveland, many of whom frequently visited her family home, had rubbed off on the impressionable Franklin. It was also around this time, when she was just 12, that Franklin gave birth to a son; she would go on to give birth to another son two years later in 1957 and two more sons in 1964 and 1970. Her grandmother and older sisters helped raise the children, allowing Franklin to focus on her musical career. After having installed recording equipment inside New Bethel Baptist Church, J.V.B. Records released Franklin’s first single in 1956 when she was 14. This was followed by the release of four more singles; all five tracks would eventually make it to ‘side one’ of the album Spirituals released that year. So electrifying were her first recordings that they eventually went on to get reissued under various labels with the most recent remastered version released in 2019 by Geffen/UME. In those days, when she wasn’t on tour with her father, she would travel with the pioneering gospel music group, The Soul Stirrers, and even traverse the gospel circuit in Chicago during the summers.

A change of tune

With her father’s permission, Franklin switched from sacred to secular music just as she turned 18, leaving her hometown of Detroit for New York City upon securing a contract with Columbia Records. Her first release with Columbia, ‘Today I Sing the Blues’ (1960), was a product of the very first session. It remains a classic to date. She would go on to release an album in 1961 which featured ‘Won’t Be Long’, her first single to chart the Billboard Hot 100. She was beginning to make a name for herself at American clubs and theatres during these years. But, even as her releases with Columbia showcased her keen ability to sing everything from Broadway ballads to diverse genres like vocal jazz, doo-wop and R&B, it was evident that something was amiss when it came to commercial success. The period between 1966 and 1979 saw Franklin return to her gospel-blues roots when she signed with Atlantic Records. It was during this time that her ‘I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)’ (1967) reached number one on the R&B chart and number nine on the Billboard Hot 100. The songstress brought her unique brand of musicianship to the table even when she covered the work of other artistes, giving songs like Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ new depth while she made them her own. A popular favourite, her rendition is remembered as both a feminist and civil rights anthem. She went on to score many more top 10 singles during this commercially successful period, and by 1968, after releasing acclaimed albums like Aretha Now, she was widely regarded as America’s most successful singer.

Fulfilling her true potential

The year 1968 saw many more successes including two Grammy awards, a Time magazine cover, and her first foreign appearance when she enthralled fans in Amsterdam. That year, when she visited Detroit for a concert, she was lauded with a day named after her. On 16th February 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. Franklin had toured with him in her early gospel days—presented the 26-year-old with an award to mark ‘Aretha Franklin Day’. She would sing at his funeral service two months later. By the early 1970s, she had played to a packed house at the Fillmore West, and embarked on tours of Europe and Latin America. Then came the 1972 album Amazing Grace—a live recording of her performance with a choir at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles—which is revered as one of the greatest gospel albums in the history of modern music. From then on, it was onwards and upwards for Franklin who had signed with Arista in 1982 and became the first woman to be inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Many honours came her way, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 1994 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. She sang for presidents and received honorary degrees from Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities, among many others. Rolling Stone magazine called Franklin ‘the greatest singer of her generation’, while President Barack Obama rightly pointed out that “American history wells up when Aretha sings”.

Franklin closed what would be one of her last performances with ‘Say a Little Prayer’ at the 25th anniversary gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation in New York. Today, almost four years after Franklin’s demise, her soul lives on through her music. It is also alive in the many tributes to her genius, whether as concerts in every corner of the world or through films, such as the 2021 biopic Respect directed by Liesl Tommy and starring Jennifer Hudson as the late singer. Such was Franklin’s impact whose spiritually tinged music continues to give people—no matter their religion or race—the hope they need to get by.

Fierce, Free & Fabulous will be presented on 5th March at the Tata Theatre. One Night Only – A Diva Special Featuring Keshia B will be presented on 25th March at the Experimental Theatre.

This piece was first published in the March 2022 issue of ON Stage by the NCPA Mumbai

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