Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018: long live the Queen of Soul
You damn right, we wanted some respect. And we still do.
And now, it’s time to pay the Queen our utmost respect. After a largely private battle with pancreatic cancer, musical icon Aretha Louise Franklin has died at the age of 76. The woman who gave women a voice — the woman who is one of the best-selling musicians of all time, with a litany of accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards — has left us all.
And I am not OK.
The statement from her family is heartbreaking “In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart. We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”
Over the course of her career, Franklin gave us anthemic music; her sound was as unique as it was familiar, Pentecostal pipes over Southern fried basslines as she wailed about the loss of love, the longing for freedom or the very simple notion of earning (and getting) the respect she so rightly deserved. Her music transcends generation, race and cultures, but her sound remains firmly rooted in black musical traditions.
It was her music — alongside the luscious, genre-defining sounds of Motown — that helped change the world. Over the course of my career, I’ve had to report and opine and write about beloved, larger-than-life figures dying. This one is personal.
Franklin is as emblematic of Detroit as a Ford Model T fresh off the factory line. Yes, she was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but she came to my hometown when she was 4, as her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, took a job as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church. Like her mother, Barbara, Franklin was gifted with a voice that could shake the rafters, and since Barbara died before she was 10, Franklin was partly reared and very influenced by women such as the gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. Her father’s status in the civil rights movement meant that folks such as Clara Ward, James Cleveland, Albertina Walker, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke were frequent guests at her childhood home.
Franklin’s early career was rooted in gospel. The good reverend saw that his daughter’s voice would be a change agent — her spiritual vocals would help guide churchgoing black folks looking for a reprieve from their lack of inalienable rights in the 1950s. One of her most stirring recordings at that time was a rousing recording of Thomas Dorsey’s gripping “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” The music was amazing. And it was healing. But Franklin had a bigger vision.
She’d barely turned 18 when she told her father that she wanted to go in a different direction — to follow Cooke’s lead and start making pop. Though she was a Detroiter, she never inked a deal with Motown; her dad thought Berry Gordy’s Tamla label was too green, and instead she went to Columbia Records. But her real impact came when she made the move to Atlantic.
In 1967, a year of so much civil unrest around the country and a year that changed her beloved — our beloved — Detroit forever, she found her voice. And her calling. Her voice would minister to black folks, to black women, to women everywhere.
I didn’t truly understand how important Franklin’s contribution was until a little over a decade ago. I was an entertainment reporter at my hometown newspaper, the Detroit Free Press. Franklin was an icon to the world, but to us, she was a neighbor. She was accessible in ways that would blow the minds of outsiders. She was a larger-than-life persona, yet very human and tangible — to a fault.
I arrived at the Free Press in 1998, right around the time when the paper was publishing a special report about how Franklin (or someone in her camp who was charged with this duty) was failing to pay outstanding local bills, mostly to mom-and pop businesses. That story was splashed across the front page, with an unflattering cutout of Franklin’s likeness.
As you might imagine, Franklin wasn’t happy and she went on a campaign. Mason in the Morning was the top black music morning radio show in Detroit at the time on WJLB, and I can still remember the interview clearly. As I drove into work one morning, John Mason, now the public address announcer for the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena, said, “You need to write an iconic story if you’re going to write about an icon.”
And I wanted to do that. My chance came in 2007. The previous year, a top editor at my paper mentioned in passing to me and my then-editor Steve Byrne that Franklin’s recording of “Respect” would turn 40 the following year. Maybe we’d do a quick story about it. Or maybe, I thought, we could do more.
Early in 2007, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I happened to be in New York that week because Jemele Hill was doing her first appearance on ESPN’s Cold Pizza, the show that would become First Take, and I was there for support and celebration. I popped over to the Waldorf Astoria because I knew Hall of Famer Franklin (the first woman to be inducted, in 1987!) would be there for a special tribute to Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, who had died in 2006.
I had backstage credentials and I wanted to see if I could get some time with her — just one quote for my would-be story. Because of the story about her failure to pay bills, she’d cut the Free Press off. No interview requests were granted. Not even to talk about her iconic song and its forthcoming anniversary. But in a room backstage at an awards show, I could be somewhat anonymous.
I raised my hand and she called on me. I’d heard a rumor that she loved the version of “Respect” that this blue-eyed soul group from Ann Arbor, Michigan, The Rationals, had recorded. A crew of white boys from Washtenaw County had taken an Otis Redding track and somehow did something to it that made Franklin and her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, take notice. It was my chance to get something from her. And I would have taken anything from her to help push whatever my story on her ended up being.
I remember her looking out at me as I asked. I purposefully coughed over my affiliation’s name because I knew the disdain she had for the Free Press. She gave me what I was looking for. It was a quick reply; she was humored. “We added the sock-it-to-me’s to it,” she said, looking down on me from a stage in that small room. I could tell for a brief moment that she was thinking of her sisters, who had died long ago: Erma from throat cancer and Carolyn from breast cancer. I saw it in her face. The memory was dancing in her mind.
I went back to Detroit with a kernel of an idea. Newspapers were trying to figure out how to elevate the work we were already doing in the digital space. Simply putting print versions of our work online wasn’t going to suffice for much longer. We needed something else. I was walking out of the office one day, passing by the photo desk, when a friend and photographer, Mandi Wright, stopped me. She’d just come back from a workshop and was eager to test out some tricks that did not involve still photography. We wanted to team up, I told her my idea and we got to work.
Somehow, a couple of newspaper journalists were going to become broadband film documentarians. Wright and I spent months working on a project that would document Franklin’s recording of 1967’s “Respect,” the civil unrest in Detroit that same year, and thusly this country in 1967. We’d tell how, in that song, women found a sororal battle cry.
When I asked my mother, a longtime Detroiter, to tell me what the summer of ’67 in Detroit was like during the thick of the riots, the summer Franklin’s song hit No. 1, I was taken aback as she shared with me how men and women were running in the streets, shouting back at police officers, “Sock it to me!” as they were trying to stay alive, clearly inspired by Franklin’s anthem, which had hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in early June.
We never got an interview with Franklin for this project, though I did try — even showed up at an open audition she had about the biopic she so wanted on her own life. I gave her a framed, throwback photo of herself and her sisters that I’d heard she loved — but ultimately I had to treat the project as if I were doing her obituary.
We talked to everyone: producers such as Mike Powell and Paul Allen; music history professors; Ortheia Barnes, who was one of her longtime backup singers; Duke Fakir of the Four Tops; and even Franklin’s son Teddy Richards, who played in her band for years and shocked us when we saw that on his mantelpiece, unprompted by our visit to his home that day, sat Franklin’s Grammy for “Respect.”
And I, surprisingly, was able to talk with legendary producer Jerry Wexler, who coined the term “rhythm and blues” and produced Franklin for that iconic album in 1967. He told me that Franklin was also a brilliant pianist who was a cross between Thelonious Monk and Mildred Falls. We won an Emmy for that documentary. And a year later, after I’d left Detroit, I heard from Franklin herself, who loved it and wanted a DVD copy for her personal archives.
That project taught me a lot. And in some ways, it solidified the work I try to do now. Music isn’t just music. Entertainment isn’t just entertaining. Not always. And Franklin did more than just layer delicious sounds over mouthwatering melodies. It was activism. And it was important.
She was a child when she was sitting in her father’s church basement, listening to men and women who would become some of this country’s most prominent voices in the face of uncertainty for black folks. She sat at their feet while they were working to figure out a master plan. And because she came from the church, she knew the importance of voice — and how music was a ministry. That music guided church folk. It guided us. And I firmly believe that at 18, when she made the choice to try to elevate her audience and amplify her voice by switching to become a pop musician, she knew that she needed a wider audience to take in her sound.
She knew we needed it. Hers wasn’t just music about freeways of love and being one of the chains of fools for a man or taking a bridge to get over troubled waters. Her music was the music that got black folks through. And it still does. Because in the late 1960s, she was creating music that would resonate a half century later.
Sock it to me? Show me some R-E-S-P-E-C-T? You damn right, we wanted some respect. And still do.
Now that she’s gone, we’ll celebrate her legacy and thank her for the gifts that she treated us to over the years. And rightly so — the Queen deserves to be honored by her parishioners. Because this is personal. And for that, we should all give her majesty one final curtsy.