Twelve Longreads for Aretha Franklin

NEW YORK - JANUARY 09: Soul singer Aretha Franklin reviews a copy of her album "Aretha Franklin - Soul '69" at Atlantic Records studios on January 9, 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Aretha Louise Franklin was born in a small house on Lucy Avenue in Memphis, south of where the Mississippi River borders the city, on March 25, 1942. By the age of 2, she moved to Buffalo, NY, and then by 4, Detroit, where she’d live most of her life and where she died this Thursday morning, at the age of 76. Her father, Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin presided over a congregation at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. Aretha began singing there as a child, and through his connections, she met Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington, Clara Ward, and Mahalia Jackson, all innovators who would influence the kind of musician she became. At 18, Aretha Franklin signed to Columbia Records, the recording home of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. She released seven albums, then moved to Atlantic in 1967, where she released the string of recordings for which she is most well known, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Lady Soul, and Aretha Now. 

Franklin became commercially successful and critically lauded. She earned 18 Grammy Awards and dominated the now defunct category for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance with 23 nominations and 11 wins. (Anita Baker won it the second most, with 5 wins). What a female vocalist was and could be, inside and outside the soul tradition, was and is forever altered by what Aretha did behind her piano. “She is the reason why women want to sing,” Mary J. Blige told Rolling Stone.

I love ethereal Aretha, when she sang atop the flutes in “Daydreaming.” But I also love how the bridges in  “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Ain’t No Way  sound like a crisis, a love panic, and the slow build and back and forth with her backing vocalists in “Mary, Don’t You Weep.” Aretha Franklin’s catalog is vast and deep, spanning decades, registers, genres. Here is a list of my favorite longreads for and about her so far.

1.“Aretha Franklin, the ‘Queen of Soul,’ Dies at 76,”  John Pareles, New York Times, August 2018.

The New York Times’ official obituary, with full exposition of the chapters of her life. 

2. “The 50 Greatest Aretha Franklin Songs,” Rolling Stone, August 2018.

“Respect,” recorded in 1967, penned originally by Otis Redding, is number one.

3. “How Aretha Franklin Created “Respect,” Carl Wilson, Slate, August 2018.

It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that Aretha’s flip of Redding’s more conventional, male-dominant song of domestic conflict and desire into a hymn of sexual and political liberation paralleled the creative subversion in those sermons. Her most distinctive rewrite, the addition of the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/ Find out what it means to me” bridge—which it’s still shocking to recall was completely absent from the original—has a touch of a preacher’s pedagogy, the moment when the celebrant might focus in on a scriptural passage and muse, “Think of this word, ‘respect.’ What does the Lord mean when he uses it? What does it mean, for example, within your own home?” But to keep proceedings from getting too heady, she immediately cuts in with language from the street: “Take care, TCB” (meaning “take care of business”) and “sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me” (meaning … well, that’s up to you).

4. “Aretha Franklin’s Astonishing ‘Dr. Feelgood,'” Emily Lordi, The New Yorker, August 2018.

Emily Lordi, author of Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and American Literature, walks us through a live performance of Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood” at the Fillmore West.

5. “Aretha Franklin Was America’s Truest Voice,” Ann Powers, NPR, August 2018.

In this tribute, Ann Powers says, “Everything popular music needs to be is there in Franklin’s songs.”

6. “A Song for Aretha,” Nell Boeschenstein, The Morning News, February 2011.

The author recalls a life of listening to and watching Aretha.

I don’t claim to know what a woman’s got to do to make it in America these days, or ever. I am still only beginning to feel my way in that darkness. That said, when I look at, listen to, or think about Aretha Franklin, I recognize in her person what I want one day for myself. In her I see a certain awareness that life is difficult and life is wonderful and that, either way, you pick up and carry on with your shoulders as square and your voice as strong as you know how to make them. Either way, you pick up and carry on with an awareness that the world out there is larger than any me or you, her or him, but also that you and me, he and she is where it all began in the first place. In her I see a way of living that is equal parts heart and head, a way which never loses sight of priorities. She has remained stalwart in her conviction of self. And that means something these days, as I sometimes wonder whether being oneself even matters anymore.

We all have people we feel this way about. One friend says she learned to live from listening to Ella Fitzgerald. My mother says she learned from reading Eudora Welty. Joan Didion certainly showed an uncharacteristic amount of admiration for someone when she wrote of Georgia O’Keefe, “Some women fight and others do not. Like so many successful guerrillas in the war between the sexes, Georgia O’Keefe seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it.”

For me, Aretha reigns with the strength she finds in vulnerability. Flaws, heartaches, mistakes, the stuff of life: These are the things she takes to heart, claims as her own. By claiming, she can then turn them around and offer back to us what she has learned. She can say, “Look at this. Feel this. This is us, don’t you see?” I wish for my own voice what Aretha’s has had from the beginning: a sense of self so strong that she had to open her mouth and sing to keep from exploding, to keep herself whole.

7. “Soul Survivor,” David Remnick, The New Yorker, April 2016.

Remnick’s profile of Franklin includes thoughts from former President Obama and a recollection of her December 9, 2015 performance of “A Natural Woman” at Kennedy Center Honors.

8. “Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018: Long Live the Queen of Soul,” Kelley Carter, The Undefeated, August 2018.

A heartfelt recollection from Detriot native writer and documentarian Kelley Carter:

I had backstage credentials and I wanted to see if I could get some time with her — just one quote for my would-be story. Because of the story about her failure to pay bills, she’d cut the Free Press off. No interview requests were granted. Not even to talk about her iconic song and its forthcoming anniversary. But in a room backstage at an awards show, I could be somewhat anonymous.

I raised my hand and she called on me. I’d heard a rumor that she loved the version of “Respect” that this blue-eyed soul group from Ann Arbor, Michigan, The Rationals, had recorded. A crew of white boys from Washtenaw County had taken an Otis Redding track and somehow did something to it that made Franklin and her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, take notice. It was my chance to get something from her. And I would have taken anything from her to help push whatever my story on her ended up being.

I remember her looking out at me as I asked. I purposefully coughed over my affiliation’s name because I knew the disdain she had for the Free Press. She gave me what I was looking for. It was a quick reply; she was humored. “We added the sock-it-to-me’s to it,” she said, looking down on me from a stage in that small room. I could tell for a brief moment that she was thinking of her sisters, who had died long ago: Erma from throat cancer and Carolyn from breast cancer. I saw it in her face. The memory was dancing in her mind.

When I asked my mother, a longtime Detroiter, to tell me what the summer of ’67 in Detroit was like during the thick of the riots, the summer Franklin’s song hit No. 1, I was taken aback as she shared with me how men and women were running in the streets, shouting back at police officers, “Sock it to me!” as they were trying to stay alive, clearly inspired by Franklin’s anthem, which had hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in early June.

9. “The Man with the Million Dollar Voice: The Mighty but Divided Soul of C.L. Franklin.” Tony Scherman, The Believer, July 2013.

This deep dive into the life and preaching artistry of Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father, casts a light on the talents of her parents.

If Aretha did grow up unhappy, her relationship with C.L. would have played a major role. The favorite child bore the weight of a demanding father’s expectations and constant, intrusive attention. Aretha craved C.L.’s approval. “[She]… would do anything to please [her father],” said a later friend. It was far from a healthy relationship. But as a performer, Aretha couldn’t have asked for a better teacher and model than the Rabbi. The tonal variety, for instance, that he wrung from his big voice found an echo in Aretha’s virtuosic shading. No less an authority than Ray Charles saw little difference between the two Franklins’ styles. “She’s got her father’s feeling and passion,” said Brother Ray. “When C.L. Franklin, one of the last great preachers, delivers a sermon, he builds his case so beautifully you can’t help but see the light. Same when Aretha sings.”

10. “Aretha Franklin Was More Than Just A Great Voice,” Tomi Obaro, Buzzfeed, August 2018.

11. “Aretha Franklin Was a Revolutionary Act in Pop,” Rashod Ollison, Virginian Pilot, August 2018.

I don’t remember my life without the sound of Aretha Franklin’s voice. It was a constant in my home. Her music was something of an altar for my mother, as she returned to Franklin through good and bad times. This became true for me as well. No matter the song, be it the mournful wail of “Ain’t No Way” or the stomping funk of “Rock Steady,” Franklin’s voice gave me a solid sense of place. This was especially true, given that my family moved so much when the rent became too high. But one thing never changed: Franklin providing solace through the surface noise of well-worn vinyl. Her 1972 “Amazing Grace” album, the legend’s glorious return to gospel during the peak of her pop career, has been a musical balm for years. I have never been without a copy.

12. “Lady Soul, Singing it Like it Is,” Time, June 1968.

In her first Time cover story, its writers try to understand soul.

But what is soul? “It’s like electricity —we don’t really know what it is,” says Singer Ray Charles. “But it’s a force that can light a room.” The force radiates from a sense of selfhood, a sense of knowing where you’ve been and what it means. Soul is a way of life —but it is always the hard way. Its essence is ingrained in those who suffer and endure to laugh about it later. Soul is happening everywhere, in esthetics and anthropology, history and dietetics, haberdashery and politics—although Hubert Humphrey’s recent declaration to college students that he was a “soul brother” was all wrong. Soul is letting others say you’re a soul brother. Soul is not needing others to say it.

Where soul is really at today is pop music. It emanates from the rumble of gospel chords and the plaintive cry of the blues. It is compounded of raw emotion, pulsing rhythm and spare, earthy lyrics—all suffused with the sensual, somewhat melancholy vibrations of the Negro idiom. Always the Negro idiom. LeRoi Jones, the militant Negro playwright, says: “Soul music is music coming out of the black spirit.” For decades, it only reverberated around the edges of white pop music, injecting its native accent here and there; now it has penetrated to the core, and its tone and beat are triumphant.

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