If the human voice is the most glorious of instruments, Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday at age 76, was the proof. Her sound came from Detroit, from the African American church, from the pulpit incantations of her father, from the blues, from jazz, from soul, from the Great Migration from Southern fields to Northern cities — and yet, exuberantly, from her own inimitable genius.
When Rolling Stone listed its top 100 performers of all time, Franklin was the first woman on the list, ninth overall. But none of the men in front of her, from the Beatles to Bob Dylan to Chuck Berry, not even Elvis Presley, possessed voices with her depth and power and beauty. To sing along with Franklin, as millions of listeners did whenever they heard her, offered a chance for the soul to explode with the full range of human emotions. Her songs even inspired legions of men to sing rapturously about female empowerment. No one could sing like her, but everyone could sing in the choir at the Church of Aretha.
The first name was enough, but the last name explained her. Franklin was not just another name in Detroit. The Queen of Soul arose from the city’s black church royalty. Her father, the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, was once such a popular preacher that hundreds of nonobservant Sunday supplicants would gather outside his New Bethel Baptist Church on warm summer days and listen to his sermons over loudspeakers that echoed down Hastings Street. His renown as the man with the “Million Dollar Voice” extended far beyond Detroit. His sermons were broadcast on radio and recorded by the JVB record label in Detroit and Chess Records in Chicago. Several times a year, he would take his act on the road, a circuit-riding preacher who filled arenas and large churches throughout the South.
Audiences were so familiar with Franklin’s sermons that they called out requests the way people do at concerts. “Play ‘The Eagle Stirreth his Nest’!” someone would shout. C.L., as he was known, was the marquee attraction in a traveling road show that also featured the reverend’s singing daughters, Erma, Carolyn and Aretha. There was no mother along. She had left for Buffalo, N.Y., when they were young and died at age 34.
Rev. Franklin was a “people’s preacher” and was also the definition of flamboyance. His church attracted followers from the meanest streets, along with the black elite. He was a civil rights activist who invited his old friend the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Detroit for a rally in June 1963, where King delivered a variation of his “I Have a Dream” speech months before the March on Washington. Long before Aretha was singing about her pink Cadillac on the “Freeway of Love,” her father drove one. He and his children lived in a grand house on Oakland Avenue. William Robinson, who later became famous as Smokey Robinson, was the best childhood friend of Aretha’s brother Cecil, and remembered being floored when he visited his buddy’s house and saw all the “oil paintings, silk curtains, mahogany cabinets and ornate objects of silver and gold.” What impressed him more was one of Cecil’s sisters — Aretha, a “cutie pie,” as he recalled, who as a 3-year-old sat down at her father’s baby grand piano and played flawlessly.
The singing talent that emerged from Detroit from the late 1950s to the late 1960s was breathtaking, and almost all of it fell into the ambit of Berry Gordy Jr. and Motown Records: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Mary Wells, the Supremes, and Martha and the Vandellas; also the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. But Aretha’s sound soared above them all. She was never part of Motown. Her father thought Gordy was too small-town, and he directed her toward the Columbia and then Atlantic recording labels. It took her longer to catch on than many Motown stars, but once the larger public found her sound, she gained not only R-E-S-P-E-C-T but also a singular place in the musical pantheon. She sang for popes and presidents, but she was also, like her father, a people’s preacher.
With Aretha Franklin’s passing, time compresses, and one can flash from the image of the little girl at her daddy’s baby grand to the scene nearly three years ago when the Queen of Soul blew the roof off the Kennedy Center after she took a seat at the piano and belted out a heart-filling rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” She was singing not just for songwriter Carole King or for the president and first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama. With her own million-dollar voice, the daughter of Rev. Franklin was singing for Detroit, for America and for the world. People die; the voice of a great singer lives forever.