Aretha Franklin was the queen of every musical genre she tried

In 1967, at the Regal Theater in Chicago, Aretha Franklin was crowned. Before a gig there, local DJ Pervis Spann put a crown on her head and named her Queen of Soul, because her version of “Respect” by Otis Redding had taken America by storm within months. previously. I adored a man like I love you “, sold like hot cakes, and even non-singles like” Dr. Feelgood “solidifying their place in the country’s pop music firmament.

Usually when honorary titles like this are bestowed on artists, they have a sense of temporality – especially in music, where youth is a precious currency and the idea of ​​discovering “the next big thing” is. an enticing promise. But Franklin, who died Thursday at age 76, was different. His voice, which balanced grain and grace while scaling the octaves with Superman-like eagerness and impeccable technique, was a signal that anyone looking to take his crown would have to fight well enough; his underrated musicality and seemingly bottomless determination bolstered the odds in his favor, regardless of the opponent.

Franklin was born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, the daughter of a preacher and a singer. She came to sing in the church, where her musical talent flourished. She learned to play the piano by ear and her first album – “Songs of Faith”, released in 1956 – was recorded at New Bethel Baptist Church, directed by her father. She started touring early and eventually turned to secular music.

“Aretha heard a song once and played it immediately, note for note,” gospel singer and Reverend James Cleveland told David Ritz in “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin”. “We always knew she had a different kind of talent. It’s the talent they call genius. You can’t learn it. You just have it.”

Musicians who have observed Franklin throughout his career agree. When she visited Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record with Muscle Shoals’ famous rhythm section for Atlantic Records, her musicality and presence, along with her innate knowledge of groove, blew away seasoned session players, like the book of Matt Dobkin in 2006 “I Never Loved A man like I love you: the realization of a masterpiece of the soul”, recalled. “After everyone heard her sing ‘You’re no good, heartbreaker’,” musician Dan Penn told Dobkin of the session where she met her backing musicians to record her first Atlantic single “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, “she had five instant fans.”

As David Remnick reported in a 2016 New Yorker article, jazz great Sarah Vaughn told coworker Etta James that Franklin’s version of Hoagy Carmichael’s ballad “Skylark” made her cautious of the idea to approach the song again, for fear of being shown. Producer Jerry Wexler once performed Franklin’s version of his song “Respect” for its author, soul legend Otis Redding, and Wexler later told his biographer, Dobkin, that Redding was “jovial” when he said, “Looks like that little girl finished my song.”

Franklin would continue to “take” a lot of songs over the years – his astonishing version of “Amazing Grace”, from the 1972 live gospel album of the same name, pushes the song to its limits in the name of the divine, while his putting The post-disco update of Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” allows her to flaunt her place in the pantheon of the soul.

But, as any casual viewer of “American Idol” or the song contest shows that have come in its wake, having a good voice isn’t enough to build a lasting career. He needs reinforcements, which Franklin had in abundance.

Her resilience was reflected in her vocal performances, her civil rights stances, which resonated both in her music and in gestures like her offer to bail out activist Angela Davis), and the way she would fight beak. and nails to protect what she considered her heritage. For example, Ritz was so frustrated with the direction she wanted to take in his 1998 autobiography that he published an unauthorized book 16 years later; “Amazing Grace,” the documentary from this 1972 live gospel album, has been bogged down in court for decades. Her innate musical knowledge was evident in her unique vocal phrasing, subtle lyric changes and gravity-defying tracks, not to mention how she incorporated jazz, blues, and other strands of American music into her soul. fueled by gospel music.

The “church-conservatory” ideal was resoundingly put into practice at the 1998 Grammy Awards, when it replaced Luciano Pavarotti at the last minute to Puccini’s tune “Nessum dorma”. She nailed it – of course she nailed it – after listening to the aria on a boombox.

From his first recordings to his extended performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 2016 at Ford Field, Franklin showed audiences how his voice reflected an American ideal. It was a melting pot where any style of music was welcome, as long as it was ready to be greeted with its vocal power and in-depth knowledge of how to turn even the most pedestrian song into a catchy hymn.

Maura Johnston is a writer and editor who teaches at Boston College. She has written for the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Time, Billboard and Rolling Stone.

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