This week, I pay tribute to the Queen of Soul, and perhaps the greatest voice of the last century, the one-and-only Aretha Franklin. Franklin was an icon, and when she stepped in front of a microphone, she could do no wrong. Her career was a curious one, too: emerging as a promising gospel singer in the late 1950s, she was signed by Columbia Records to be the next pop star in the style of Dinah Washington. But it wasn’t until 1967 when she signed to Atlantic Records that her true voice emerged as the Queen of Soul. Sadly, we lost Aretha last month at age 76. On this episode, I’ll discuss some of the highlights of her career in the 1960s and 70s.
Aretha Franklin started her singing career in the 1950s in the Detroit church of her father, the famed pastor C. L. Franklin. C. L.’s sermons were recorded and disseminated, famous among African Americans all around the country. People like gospel icons Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, Sam Cooke, Art Tatum, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were regulars in C. L.’s New Bethel Baptist Church. It was here that Aretha, from a young age, mastered the expressive cadences of gospel music.
When Aretha turned 18, C. L. Franklin fully supported his daughter’s pop singing aspirations. She rejected offers from RCA and her hometown label Motown to sign with Columbia, one of the most prestigious record labels. Columbia’s A&R man John Hammond, the same man who discovered Billie Holiday decades earlier, wasn’t sure how to market a gospel singer in the pop music scene. So for years, Columbia tried the same techniques that they always had used with other jazz singers: provide them with a good pop standard, a background of some light jazz instrumentation and possibly some strings, and let them shine.
It was a tried and true method, and Aretha’s voice did shine. But Aretha’s voice contained a depth and power not heard in pop music. What might have once worked for Doris Day or Rosemary Clooney was not going to work for Aretha Franklin.
While her voice might be vibrant on a song like “Try A Little Tenderness,” an old standard written back in 1932 that became Aretha’s first big single for Columbia, the arrangement seems to be stuck in the previous decade. She even performed this song on American Bandstand, her first appearance on the show, but made no waves with the public.
The Columbia years for Aretha were not as bad as they’re often made out to be. They only seem bad in retrospect after her amazing commercial and artistic success for Atlantic records in the late 1960s. While her recordings with Columbia didn’t sell or resonate with the public, they still feature the singer as you’re used to hearing her. Aretha’s gospel roots were impossible to hide—Aretha Franklin always sounds like Aretha Franklin, and she had the ability to transform any song into an Aretha Franklin song, even in her younger years. The reason that these Columbia records are often thought of as a “failure” has more to do with marketing than anything Franklin did as a performer.
For instance, on songs like “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Lee Cross,” she sounds unquestionably like the soulful Aretha Franklin that we all know. However, Columbia failed to market her as a fresh, soulful voice, preferring to emphasize some of her more traditional songs.
Her Columbia record contract expired in 1966, and with them unable to make her a bankable star, Aretha opted not to renew and signed with the more R&B focused Atlantic Records. Atlantic records was where Franklin flourished. She began to accompany herself on the piano more, taking more control over the rhythm and feel of her recordings and letting her gospel roots shine.
Her breakout hit came almost immediately in 1967. She had been used to taking other people’s songs and transforming them into her own, and that was certainly the case with “Respect,” a song by soul singer Otis Redding. Redding’s original in 1965 is a jumpy, desperate plea from a man, wanting respect from his lover. Franklin’s on the other hand is a steady, assured proclamation from a woman’s point of view, not merely wanting respect but demanding it. It became a rallying cry for feminists and civil rights activists in the late 1960s. It was Aretha and her sisters’ idea to add the “sock it to mes,” and the R-E-S-P-E-C-T part to the song, departing from Otis Redding’s original.
One thing that distinguished Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic recordings was the sensuality she brought to her performances. Many of her songs, like “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You,” “Good To Me As I Am To You,” or “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” were love songs (good or bad love). Aretha’s voice was able to capture all of the raw nuances of that emotion: heartbreak, desire, lust, devotion, infatuation—it was all innately tied into her soulful voice.
Franklin became known for her covers, transforming songs once made famous by another artist into her own soulful anthem. That was the case for Otis Redding’s “Respect,” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Dionne Warwick’s “I Say A Little Prayer,” Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem,” The Band’s “The Weight,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son Of A Preacher Man,” Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” and so many others.
But one thing that we sometimes forget about Franklin was that she was also a songwriter. Especially in her Atlantic career, many of her biggest hits were originals. Franklin’s originals were deeply personal, a reflection on a life that—despite her fame and fortune—was often troubled. She had her first child before she was even a teenager, her marriage to Ted White throughout the 1960s was often abusive, and on top of it all, she was subject to much of the same racism that any African-American artist, no matter how famous, faced in the 1950s and 60s.
Her songs were outlets for her emotions, a way for her to channel frustration or her desire for freedom, and songs like “Think” and “Spirit In The Dark” capture these emotions for Aretha.
Aretha Franklin had one of the most singularly iconic voices of the 20th century. But surprisingly, she was also very stylistically diverse, equally adept at soul, gospel, rock, blues, jazz, or funk. Her voice, however, was not chameleon-like. She never adapted it to fit the style of one genre or another, rather her voice was so powerful that the genre seemed to bend to her will, becoming an Aretha Franklin song by association, but not losing its original character.
The soul of Aretha Franklin’s voice, however, was her gospel sound. Her live performance showcased her fully channeling the preacher energy of her father C.L. Franklin. On a song like “Dr. Feelgood” from her 1971 record Live at The Fillmore West, she’s not merely singing the song live, but transforming the concert into a religious experience. At the same time, she transforms the “Dr. Feelgood” in the song from a lover to Jesus Christ himself, with Aretha seeking a different kind of salvation.