In Memoriam: Aretha Franklin
It takes almost 30 seconds for Aretha Franklin to sing the word “amazing.” If it were anyone else it’d be overkill. But this is Aretha Franklin, doing it on a live gospel album that went double platinum.
There are certain musicians that everyone, regardless of the music they listen to, just agree on. Jimi Hendrix. Nirvana. Bob Dylan. Aretha’s among them. Say her first name and everyone immediately knows who you’re talking about. Even if you have someone in your life named Aretha, it’s Franklin you think of first.
I don’t have to tell you how great she is. Or maybe I do. For younger generations, her career is boiled down to one song. A song that, believe it or not, is a cover. Originally by Otis Redding, it’s about wanting to relax after getting home from work without being bothered by your spouse. But with a couple line changes and a quick spelling lesson she turned it into the definitive anthem in all of popular music.
While not every one of her 40 (!) albums is a classic, there’s something great to be found on each record. Like many artists from her era, she adopted ‘80s production techniques that make her music dated, and at times artificial, but other times produced magic. Listen to Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, which gave the then-43 year old four top 40 hits, two of which hit the top 10. On that album was her other great feminist anthem “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” which featured Eurythmics. Her magic never ran out. Just listen to her reggae-tinged rendition of Alicia Keys’ “No One,” proving that even in 2014 the Queen reigned supreme.
Watch her perform for Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. She sings one of her signature songs, the King-penned “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and just blows the roof off the place. You can see it in King’s face the moment she starts singing. It just doesn’t make sense she could still sound that good. They cut to President Obama and he’s tearing up (Michelle of course keeps her cool). At one point she gets up from the piano, bumps off her massive fur coat, and gets a standing ovation in the middle of the song.
Belting seemed to be her default, so when she really did belt out she unleashed an impossible power, unmatched before or since. In 1985, the state of Michigan declared her voice a natural resource. Why? Well, why not? That voice is embedded into American history. She performed at both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral and at Barack Obama’s inauguration, and both times she sounded like God’s gift to Earth. So as we mourn her loss, let’s celebrate that such a voice was even allowed to exist.