Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday at 76, was more than the undisputed “Queen of Soul.” She was one of the most important musicians of our time, a genius who soared above genres and expectations to create music that will live forever.
She was not an opera singer, yet she brought down the house at the Grammys in 1998 when she filled in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and delivered an unforgettable version of the Puccini aria “Nessun Dorma.” She was not a jazz singer, but her renditions of standards such as “Love for Sale” and “Misty” were cited by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in awarding her the organization’s highest honors. She was not primarily known as a gospel singer, but I defy anyone to hear her sing “Precious Lord” and not feel the spirit.
In 1972, veteran rock critic Robert Christgau set out to “explode the Aretha Franklin myth,” using her newly released album, “Young, Gifted and Black,” as his vehicle. But after listening to the LP, he called it a “triumph” and declared: “Yes, yes, Aretha Franklin is a genius.”
Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer at Atlantic Records who shepherded much of Franklin’s oeuvre, wrote a piece for Rolling Stone in 2004 in which he recalled the day she told him about her idea for reworking a song that had been a hit for the great Otis Redding. “It was already worked out in her head,” Wexler wrote.
The song was titled “Respect.” When Redding heard Franklin’s version, Wexler recalled, he said simply, “She done took my song.”
Franklin took a lot of people’s songs. Dionne Warwick’s version of “I Say a Little Prayer,” written for her by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, is better than good; she navigates the song’s tricky changes in time signature expertly, dancing across the melody. But when Franklin gets her hands on that same song, good Lord in heaven. She turns a bouncy little tune into an anthem of love, yearning and commitment. The quick switches from 4/4 time to 3/4 and back again are still there, but you don’t even notice them because all you hear is Franklin’s glorious voice telling a story that builds and builds. When she breaks into the chorus for the final time, she says the word “ever” in three very different ways, and just melts every listening heart. Then finally, in the coda, she gives us a moment to catch our collective breath.
“It’s a better record than the record we made,” Bacharach once admitted to NPR.
Or consider a song such as “Angel” from the 1973 album “Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky).” As a song, to tell the truth, it isn’t much to write home about. Cassandra Wilson, acclaimed as one of the best jazz singers alive, covered it in 1991 to little effect. Few others have bothered to try — perhaps because Franklin’s original version is transcendent. Her voice gradually rising in pitch and swelling in volume, she gets to the word “angel” for the last time and makes it “an-geh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-el,” turning two syllables into eight and a ho-hum composition into a masterpiece.
Franklin was blessed with great talent. Especially in her earlier recordings, you can hear that her voice had tremendous range, including a powerful upper register. Her father was the pastor of a Detroit church that was known for fiery sermons and sweet music, and she learned piano as a young girl, gaining a skill that served her well. Producer Wexler encouraged her to play on her records.
“She was a brilliant pianist, a combination of Mildred Falls — Mahalia Jackson’s accompanist — and Thelonious Monk,” Wexler wrote. “In other words, Aretha brought a touch of jazz to her gospel piano.”
Franklin also had an acute sense of history. She broke through with “Respect” in 1967, just as the civil rights movement was breaking through. The song became a statement not just of women’s empowerment but of African American empowerment as well.
In the end, though, it was Franklin’s brilliant musicianship that allowed her to shape her talent and her ideas into an epochal body of work. Her music was always soulful, whether she was singing a call-and-response gospel number or a spun-sugar confection aimed at the pop charts. Her use of melisma was impeccably tasteful — always just enough, never too much. She told stories in a way that made you dance, cry, love, laugh, even try to sing along.
She was a towering, once-in-a-generation vocal artist. This is a very sad day.