The Legacy of Aretha Franklin (Now Including Special Coverage of Her Memorial)

Addendum: Detroit will celebrate the life of Aretha Franklin on Friday, August 31st at 7 a.m. PST. Over two dozen people — including heads of state, a record mogul, and music legends of nearly every description — will take the stage of the Greater Grace Temple to speak, sing and pray in honor of the gift that Franklin so readily shared with the world. NPR is providing a live video stream of this special event here:

 

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The Queen is dead; long live the Queen! Aretha Franklin, nicknamed “the Queen of Soul,” has passed in her adopted hometown of Detroit at the age of 76, after a series of illnesses, reportedly ultimately succumbing to pancreatic cancer. One of the powerhouses of popular music in the wake of rock ’n’ roll, Franklin shared her distinctive mix of R&B, soul, gospel, blues, jazz and pop music over the course of 60 years of recording, notching over a hundred charting singles (a record for a female artist), with twenty of them reaching #1 on the R&B charts. She received 18 Grammys, numerous stars on various Walks of Fame, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, honorary degrees from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Berklee College of Music and others, as well as the #1 position on a Rolling Stone list of the Greatest Singers of All Time. In short, she was an artist of legendary proportions, and her death is a profound loss for the music community.

Ceremony for the Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Although she began her career singing gospel and recording a number of albums, both spiritual and secular for Columbia Records in the early half of the 60s, it wasn’t until she opted out of her Columbia contract and started recording for Atlantic Records in 1967 that she had her big breakthrough.  Her first album for Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (recorded, in part, at the acclaimed FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals), was a huge smash, featuring the title cut, her first #1 R&B single, along with her definitive take on the Otis Redding track, “Respect,” a #1 hit on both the pop & R&B charts. Over the next 20 years, she released a string of albums and dozens of singles that redefined the expectations of female singers, blending a feminist strength with a deep emotional resonance that allowed her to tackle genres often thought beyond the ability of pop singers, from vocal jazz to classical. She even made appearances on the silver screen, such as in this classic scene from The Blues Brothers:

During the 80s and beyond, Franklin brought her sound to a new generation of music fans, while still making hits with tracks like “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.” She collaborated with younger artists such as the Eurythmics, George Michael, and Whitney Houston on various successful duets, and performed in front of Queen Elizabeth for a command performance at the Royal Albert Hall, as well as in front of millions of TV viewers during Super Bowl XL. And she clearly was an essential influence on the likes of Adele and Beyonce, serving as both a model and a peer.

Aretha Now

But she will be remembered as more than just a talented musician. She will also go down in history as an important figure in the feminist movement, as well as in African-American culture, as a strong, incredibly successful woman of color. Two moments at the end of her career typify her importance to her country: performing at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 (where she also became an internet meme for her distinctive, ornate hat); and in 2015 singing her untouchable version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in front of one of that year’s Kennedy Center honorees, Carole King, the co-writer of that Top 10 hit for Franklin, which brought the house down. These, and many other musical moments, confirm that Aretha Franklin is an unforgettable part of American history and an artist of the highest magnitude who will forever be irreplaceable.

 

Here are some thoughts about her legacy from the KCRW music staff:

Aretha was one of the great voices of our time. Her version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” always brings tears to my eyes. Sail on Silver Girl. – Gary Calamar

“Daydreaming,” featuring Donny Hathaway & Hubert Laws, is probably my favorite Aretha song. – Chris Douridas

Anne Litt cited “Don’t Let Me Lose this Dream” as a personal favorite.

Her version of “Trouble in Mind,” an early side for Columbia, remains one of the best versions of the song. And don’t ever forget that she was a hell of a pianist too. – Tom Schnabel

Bo Leibowitz picks “Moody’s Mood For Love” on Atlantic: “Quincy arrangement, way up tempo.”

Mario Cotto says: When George Michael died I pulled the 12″ for his duet with Aretha, which given when it came out was kind of like my Aretha. I knew that there was CLASSIC Aretha, like I’d hear RESPECT and THINK on the “oldies” station or whatever. Even at 10-11 years old, I knew it was one of those weird 80s late career MTV kinda things, like Starship’s “We Built This City,” James Brown’s “Livin’ in America” and Bowie/Jagger doing “Dancing in the Streets” but unlike those tracks “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” actually had MAD soul. And the more I listened to it, it’s not like it had “soul,” like it had a whole LOT of soul. Full on uplifting Gospel, powerful sermon on a Sunday churchy vibes. It’s a wild tribute to the depth of her soulfulness that almost 25 years into a career she’d deliver not only her biggest chart hit, and an international one at that. I still believe.

My suggestion is this video. I mean, how many artists, at this point in their career, can bring the house down like this? – Rachel Reynolds

Finally, Marion Hodges remembers: I was house-sitting once for a couple that had an edition of Newsweek from the ’60s out on the coffee table. I’m pretty sure she was on the cover, and there was a huge feature about this new wave of soul music that she was one of the leaders of. It was so interesting to both read music journalism from that era, and to consider the time when she was the next big up-and-coming thing, not the well established Queen of Soul that she was during my entire lifetime. I’m sure I heard “Respect” for the first time in a movie. Her impact on American culture is so vast and vital. What a life to truly celebrate.

Aretha Franklin on cover of Time Magazine

 

You can also listen here to show-length tributes to Aretha from Jeremy Sole, Garth Trinidad & Travis Holcombe.