For the past several days we’ve been reading reports that Aretha Franklin was gravely ill, but it still came as an unexpected blow when we read that the undisputed “Queen of Soul” had died on Thursday of pancreatic cancer at the too-young age of 76.
You really had to be there in the American craziness of the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the inner cities were burning and a full-blown race war seemed imminent, to fully appreciate Franklin’s immense musical gifts. In so many ways it was the worst of times, but if you had a transistor radio tuned to the right AM stations it was the best of times for that sweet soul music promising a new dawn of brotherhood to a bad-ass groove, and Franklin was as good as anybody in that golden musical age.
Franklin was born back in ’42 in the quintessential American music town of Memphis, Tennessee, but she soon wound up in Detroit, Michigan, when her father took the pulpit at the city’s largest Baptist church. Rev. C.L. Franklin was such a formidable preacher that the great rhythm-and-blues Chess Records label released his sermons, which of course had the irresistible musical cadences of the black southern Baptist tradition, and no less an authority than the supreme gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was an unabashed fan of his wife’s gospel singing, so the young Aretha grew up immersed in one of the very richest veins of America’s glorious musical culture.
Even so, the pitch-perfect and prodigiously talented teen-age Franklin started her career on the big-time Columbia Records label singing jazzy renditions of the popular standards, and although those recordings aren’t bad at all they only hinted at her talents and didn’t sell very well. Her big break came when signed with the less-respectable but far cooler Atlantic Records label, and they sent her down to record in a remote and rural studio surrounded by cotton fields in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where a surprisingly soulful house band of mostly white Alabama boys was somehow laying down the funkiest tracks of those crazy days.
Franklin always freely admitted that she initially had her doubts about those white boys in the remote and rural studio surrounded by cotton fields, but the emaciated Southern Baptist pianist and future rock-and-roll hall-of-famer Spooner Oldham came up with the riffs that led to her first great recordings, and the chubby and pasty and bespectacled drummer Roger Hawkins was striking a perfectly soulful beat, and the rest of the band somehow enticed the best of their shared southern gospel tradition out of her. The recording session ended in acrimony over her husband-of-the-time’s beef with the studio owner, but it soon resumed with the same players in Atlantic Record’s Jewish-and-Turkish-owned New York studio, and it eventually yielded such classics as “Chain of Fools,” “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, ” You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman),” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” and “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.”
The songs were conspicuously secular and often quite political, but they were well-crafted and performed with all the spiritual fervor of a Sunday morning worship service, and that was the formula that made sweet soul music so important in that crazy moment of that time and still so good to hear even in these crazy times. Atlantic Records’ all-time great Ray Charles was arguably the first to fuse gospel fervor and and pop refinement and ghetto funkiness into sweet soul music, and those over-produced pop records that one-time gospel great Sam Cooke cut at the lame RCA label were arguably just as important, but Aretha Franklin arguably set a new standard for the for that great genre. Her recording of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” was a cover of the great soul singer Otis Redding’s classic rendition, which had been recorded in Memphis’ Stax Studio with crucial help from the legendarily soulful white boys Steve Cropper on guitar and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, but it added a certain hip-swagging soul sister sassiness ad made the song a feminist as well as a civil rights anthem, and we still like it better even than the very cool original. We note that she died on the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, another American original who fused white and black and secular and sacred influences to create some of the best of America’s glorious musical culture, and we hope that they’ll overwhelm the the left’s and right’s current crazy aversion to aversion to “cultural appropriation.”
That sweet soul music soon lost its spot on the top of the charts to disco, and then hip-hop, and then whatever you want to call today’s cacophonous version of black American music, but Franklin kept right on recording the good stuff until recently, and she racked up a lot of hits and several classics along the way. Most of those recordings were made with mainly black and almost exclusively male musicians, but they were undeniably great music, and she remained an outspoken advocate for racial and sexual equality until her dying day, and we’re sure we’re not the only white boys who are grateful for all the sweet soul music she created and what it had to say about American greatness.
— Bud Norman