The Queen of Soul is dead.
Aretha Franklin, 76, was blessed with the most rapturous voice in music history. For more than 50 years, her music was as vital as air. It filled you. It pulsed in your veins. She made your shoulders bounce, and gave you the strength to take another hard step. You could dance to “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” have an ugly cry to “Don’t Play That Song,” or get down and dirty with “Dr. Feelgood.” She could make a heathen catch the Holy Spirit to “Old Landmark.”
Aretha was so dynamic, she spelled a word — R-E-S-P-E-C-T — and made it her own. “Respect” was Otis Redding’s song, but it was Aretha’s 1967 reinvention that made it an evergreen classic. After hearing Aretha’s version, Redding joked, “That girl stole my song.” He knew it would never again belong to him.
“Respect” became the pulse for the civil rights movement and women’s liberation. Aretha wasn’t begging for respect; she demanded nothing less. Only 24 when she recorded it, Aretha sang with the confidence and maturity of a grown-ass woman who knew her worth.
She reveled in the splendor of her unapologetic blackness and her unshakable black womanhood. For many of us trying to find our way in a nation too often hostile to our race and gender, Aretha was a guiding light.
Aretha topped the pop charts, but made no concessions for white mainstream success. She never dulled the edges of a voice honed on that most rigorous training ground — the black church, where you needed to make more than a joyful noise if you lifted your voice in praise.
Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a revered gospel singer, had his daughter singing solos in his Detroit church as a child. She would sign her first recording contract while still in her teens. After a misguided stint with Columbia Records, she signed with Atlantic Records.
It’s no coincidence that Aretha found her true voice at a label that helped shape the careers of such African-American stars as Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett. Like Aretha, both sang secular music with a lot of Sunday morning in their voices. At Atlantic, Aretha realized her full artistry. She wrote and arranged songs. She played piano. And she centered the raw ecstasy and tenderness of gospel in every vowel.
Her debut album for the label, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” made her a superstar. If Motown was “The Sound of Young America,” Aretha was the sound of young black America. On her 1968 hit, “Think,” when Aretha sings, “Give me some freedom, oh freedom,” she’s not just reading the difficult man in her life; it’s a declaration of independence, a clapback to the unyielding hand of racism. It’s no less an emblem of that incendiary year than James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
When black activist Angela Davis was jailed in the 1970s, Aretha offered to pay her bond “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000.” She said, “Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace.”
If Aretha’s record sales never again matched her astonishing run in the 1960s and 1970s, which produced such hits as “Spanish Harlem,” “Chain of Fools,” “Rock Steady,” “Until You Come Back to Me,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” she was never far from public consciousness. In the 1980s, she kept charting, with “Freeway of Love,” “Jump to It,” and “I Knew You’d Be Waiting for Me,” her duet with George Michael.
In concert, she could be prickly with audiences. On a night when she just wasn’t feeling it, her performances could be rushed, bordering on indifferent. Fans were generally forgiving — after all, divas gonna diva. Yet at her best, she was transcendent.
Perhaps no moment better captured this than her surprise 1998 Grammys performance. On short notice, Aretha stepped in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti to sing the famous Puccini aria “Nessun dorma.” After a dramatic coda, her arms raised triumphantly, she received a standing ovation. Some audience members even wiped away tears. I can’t imagine why anyone doubted her ability. Decades into her career, she’d found a new way to enthrall her fans.
Aretha sang for presidents and a Pope, yet more than anything, she sang for us. Because she lived it, she understood the infernal struggles black women face in this nation. She came to us as a beacon of feminism and black pride, and because we still face — and resist — oppression, her colossal voice will always be resonant and relevant.
What we won’t have are more indelible Aretha moments: the way, while singing, she would shrug a massive fur coat off her shoulders and let it drop to the floor; how thrilling it was to be reminded of her gifts as a pianist; how she brought President Obama, who she adored, to tears while paying tribute to Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors.
Aretha’s loss is as unfathomable as it was inevitable, yet greatness can never be silenced. Yes, there will always be other worthy singers and performers, but we must recognize today what has been essential for more than 50 years — there will never be another Queen of Soul.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham