The Queen has left the building.
Aretha Franklin has died the age of 76, having forever transformed the landscape of American popular music. That she was indisputably The Queen of Soul was most recently made it clear when her December 6, 2015 performance at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center quickly went viral. Audiences around the world reveled as she performed Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Jerry Wexler’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” with a blazing emotional honesty that couldn’t help but bring tears of joy – and a stunning, yet simple, diva-like moment in which she dropped her fur coat to the floor for full mobility as she reached its finale. With that gesture, Franklin triumphantly exuded freedom – something not always easily available to a woman, let alone an African-American woman.
The freedom represented by Franklin’s music became the soundtrack of the civil rights era, with fiery anthems like “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” and, of course, “Respect” (which she reclaimed from its writer and original performer, Otis Redding, to make her own) inspiring generations. Yet Franklin wasn’t locked into one time period or musical style. Before her powerful string of Atlantic Records albums, she had recorded for Columbia Records, where, for the first time, she blended jazz, pop, blues, and gospel into her own brand of soul. Her underrated Columbia recordings set the stage for the alchemy that happened at Atlantic. Her second album for the label, and twelfth overall, was titled Aretha Arrives…and arrived, she had. Hers was a voice that spoke truth, and transcended age, race, and gender. She sang for civil rights, for women’s liberation, for equality for all. She brought the fervor and feeling of the church to compositions of every stripe – from the elegant, sophisticated sound of Burt Bacharach and Hal David to the loping country of John Hartford, the Long Island pop of The Young Rascals, and the silky Motown soul of Smokey Robinson. Her Atlantic albums make for a master class in singing. They are both of the time they were recorded, and utterly timeless.
Her 1968 Grammy Award win for the era-defining “Respect” was the first of a stunning eight consecutive wins as Best Female R&B Vocal Performance – and that still wasn’t enough for Franklin, who returned to take the trophy three more times in the 1980s. Her career didn’t have the “shelf life” of the typical pop star; but nothing about Aretha Franklin was typical. After a relatively fallow period in the late 1970s, she bounced back at Clive Davis’ Arista Records, as soulful and funky as ever with irresistible hits like “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?,” “Jump to It,” “Freeway of Love,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” and collaborations with George Michael (“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”) and Eurythmics (“Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves”). The younger generation of artists lined up to work with Franklin, or simply to bask in her confident glow. This was an artist who wore the “diva” tag proudly, always maintaining a larger-than-life presence on and offstage. Accolades were rightfully given: She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a 44-time Grammy nominee, as well as a Kennedy Center Honoree.
In recent years, Aretha never stopped lighting up the world’s stages, whether stepping in for Luciano Pavarotti to deliver a thrilling and singular rendition of the aria “Nessun Dorma” in 1998, shocking a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert audience at Madison Square Garden in 2009 with a rapturously moving version of “Make Them Hear You” from the Broadway musical Ragtime, or tearing it up with her greatest hits at Clive Davis’ Soundtrack of Our Lives gala at Radio City Music Hall in 2017. But perhaps no recent moment was as meaningful as, on January 20, 2009, when she performed for President Barack Obama’s inauguration – earning headlines for her performance of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as well as her bold choice of hats as she movingly gave voice to the collective hope of a nation that had just elected its first African-American President.
Aretha Franklin was an artist whose music knew no boundaries, for she channeled universal emotion with power and ferocity. Franklin last performed onstage in November 2017 at a benefit for Elton John’s AIDS Foundation, but her body of work – and its reverberations – will continue to be heard as long as there is music. The final song on Franklin’s final studio album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, was her reworking of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” It’s a fitting cap to an extraordinary career, for in truth, nothing compares to Aretha Franklin.