At Chicago’s Regal Theater in 1967, at the height of her powers, Aretha Franklin had a crown placed upon her head in a coronation that was official enough. She was pronounced the Queen of Soul. But what does that mean?
There are certain artists who possess, beyond the admiration for their art, a supernatural sway in evoking our love. In a better world, they would be our royalty.
But, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Queening ain’t easy, something Ms. Franklin spelled out on Respect and many other songs she recorded.
Aretha Franklin died Thursday, at the age of 76. She will be remembered, of course, for her voice, a transcendent instrument under an expressive expert’s full control. The phrasing, the colour, the communicative ability, the sheer power – it’s all there. Beyond that, we will remember Ms. Franklin’s piano-playing musicianship, her songwriting (Think, Day Dreaming, Rock Steady, Who’s Zoomin’ Who) and her extraordinary command in a variety of different styles. Soul music? Queen of, as discussed. Pop? After Ms. Franklin sang I Say a Little Prayer, Dionne Warwick (who recorded it first) winced and shrunk an inch. Swamp rock? Chain of Fools struts like Creedence Clearwater Revival on grits, deep spite and back-woods voodoo. Gospel? Ms. Franklin, the daughter of a Detroit preacher, was a virtuoso at the age of 15. By that time she had already given birth to two children.
In 1969, The Globe and Mail’s Ritchie Yorke visited Miami’s Criteria Studio for a feature interview with the 27-year-old Ms. Franklin, at that time the biggest-selling female vocalist in history. At the studio one evening, producer Tom Dowd and five session musicians from Muscle Shoals, Ala., waited on the Queen. When the phone rang, the men got the news: Ms. Franklin wouldn’t make the session, same as the night before. She wasn’t in the right mood. She was beat.
Ms. Franklin has been described as a diva. She postponed gigs regularly. She was sick and/or fatigued, and who wouldn’t be? Aretha Franklin didn’t need a woman-beating James Brown to tell her it was a man’s man’s man’s world. The work demanded of a meal-ticket artist such as Ms. Franklin was grueling. So, she rebelled. Cancel a concert. Make the men wait at the studio. A diva? Or was she simply tired, and tired of being put upon?
With Poem for Aretha, the American poet Nikki Giovanni got to the fatigue of an artist: “Nobody mentions how it feels to become a freak because you have talent and how no one gives a damn how you feel, but only cares that Aretha Franklin is here…”
There was a weariness to Ms. Franklin. Her off-stage life was complicated. Blues, pain and frustration were reflected in her material. A woman is only human, and Ms. Franklin was asked to be more than that. So, she struck back, doing what she could on her own terms, as it related to her career and to her personal life. Yes, she made stands with Otis Redding’s Respect, the Eurythmics’s Sisters Are Doin’ for Themselves and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man by Chips Moman and Dan Penn. But her own songs were just as empowering and defiant. “You better think, think about what you’re trying to do to me,” she sang on the feminist anthem Think. And on Who’s Zoomin’ Who, “You thought I’d be naïve and tame, but I beat you at your own game.”
The 1969 Globe feature on Franklin ended with rock critic Mr. Yorke asking the singer when she planned to resume touring. “When I’m not broken down or tired,” she said. He told her she looked fine on the surface. “Well,” she replied, “why don’t we just say I’m young and vibrant?”
A Queen’s wish should have been our command. Aretha was unreal, but so real, too.