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‘Respect’ spotlights the Black female artists who helped Aretha Franklin soar

The lesson that fueled Franklin’s long, fulfilling life

Aretha Franklin performs during the 85th annual Christmas tree lighting at the New York Stock Exchange in December 2008. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

In “Respect,” the recently released biopic about the late Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Hudson portrays familiar stories: the Queen of Soul’s upbringing and singing in her father’s church, the productivity and restlessness of her years at Columbia Records and her transformational experience upon signing with Atlantic Records and recording in Muscle Shoals, Ala. The film highlights her complicated relationship with her father, C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), and her musical kinship with gospel great James Cleveland (Tituss Burgess).

Mixed in between those plotlines are glimpses of three Black women who shaped her: Franklin’s mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, Clara Ward and Dinah Washington. Though subtle moments in the film, these are important inclusions in a story about Aretha Franklin’s life and remind us of an important historical truth: For Black female artists in particular, the struggles of being Black and a woman do not dissipate because one is talented. Among its many contributions, “Respect” offers a window into how a strong network of Black female artists supported one another despite abusive relationships, tough periods in their careers and the loneliness of success.

Barbara Siggers Franklin (Audra McDonald) died when Aretha was only 10 years old. Siggers Franklin was a pianist and a very fine gospel singer. Their time together in life was brief and Aretha spoke of her mother as a loving and consistent presence in her life.

Siggers Franklin was only 34 years old when she died. She never had the opportunity to realize whatever musical ambitions she might have had — and in fact, her own musical abilities took a back seat to supporting her husband’s career as a preacher and pastor. Yet, her considerable talent lived on in the life and career of her daughter.

Indeed, Aretha Franklin recorded her first live album in 1956, when she was just 14 years old. The gospel album “Songs of Faith” revealed Aretha had already absorbed the richness of Black Baptist gospel hymnody and had strong ideas about how to make it her own. The album included the song “The Day Is Past and Gone,” one of the most popular hymns sung in Baptist churches at the time.

While Aretha’s solo version contained echoes of the way a deacon would line the hymn to open a church service, it was vocally modeled after the performance of her greatest musical influence, Clara Ward. Ward was a pioneering gospel singer who, under the direction of her mother, Gertrude Ward, became the lead singer of the Ward Singers. Ward’s highly energetic and fashion-forward performances brought the group national acclaim among both nightclub and church audiences.

Ward and Aretha Franklin’s father maintained an enduring personal relationship that also allowed Aretha to develop a close bond with Ward. Ward’s glamorous style, charismatic performances and her willingness to carry her faith and voice deep into the secular world provided Aretha with a model for how to approach her own career and musical development.

While Ward (Heather Headley) makes recurring appearances throughout “Respect,” the film is often subtle in noting her profound musical influence on Franklin. In “Respect,” we last see Ward sitting in the front row at the taping for Franklin’s 1972 album “Amazing Grace.” And in fact, Franklin did pay special tribute to her at that recording and honored the impact Ward had on her career.

On “Amazing Grace,” Franklin performed Ward’s famous gospel hymn, “How I Got Over,” and Franklin included Ward’s “Packin’ Up” on her 1987 gospel album, “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” In Franklin’s autobiography, she repeatedly referred to Ward as both her “mentor” and her “supporter.” Tragically, Ward died only a year after “Amazing Grace” came out, at the age of 48, after suffering several strokes. Franklin sang “The Day Is Past and Gone” at her funeral.

Dinah Washington is the final Black woman spotlighted in “Respect” who shaped Franklin. In 1964, before Franklin’s groundbreaking 1967 album, “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” made her a global music star, Chicago radio DJ Pervis Spann literally crowned her the “Queen of Soul” at the Regal Theater. Reflecting on that moment in her 1999 autobiography, Franklin said, “The only queens I had known of were Dinah Washington and Elizabeth I and II. To be considered worthy of the same title held by Dinah was an honor of the highest order.”

Washington reigned as the “Queen of the Blues.” Born in Alabama and a veteran pianist and singer on the Chicago gospel circuit, Washington became famous for a clarion timbre with which she sang both standard and dirty blues alike. She was a frequent visitor to the Franklin home in Detroit, and an early observer and supporter of Aretha’s talent.

Although Washington achieved well-earned commercial success during her lifetime, her personal life was filled with battles against addiction to alcohol, diet pills and drugs. Washington died tragically of a drug and alcohol overdose in December 1963 at the age of 39, and Franklin sang the gospel standard “Precious Lord” at her funeral.

“Respect” was never meant to be about Barbara Siggers Franklin, Clara Ward or Dinah Washington. It rightfully holds Aretha Franklin as the sun with all the others orbiting her. The movie also suggests that it may have been both the musical tutelage Franklin received from her mother, Ward and Washington that helped her find a path that allowed her to be both Aretha and the Queen of Soul. And there is beauty in that story.

But it is notable that all three of these women died prematurely. In many ways, their deaths lay bare that Franklin’s real triumph was that she lived a long and full life, and that she left behind a canon of music that will live on forever.

She did both of these things by learning to draw boundaries and only giving a slice of herself to her public while saving other parts of herself for those who really knew and loved her. Perhaps it was her willingness to prioritize her needs as the Queen of Soul that granted her the keys to a robust life.

When Franklin no longer felt comfortable flying, she did not. When she did not feel comfortable doing interviews, she declined. When she decided to make her hometown of Detroit the center of her world, she did so fully.

Black women, even female Black entertainers, are rarely accorded that sense of control over their own lives. But as Aretha Franklin’s longevity in music and life demonstrated, the possibilities are endless when Black women are the center of their own universe.

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons Aretha Franklin absorbed from these three women is how to live — and not die — with levels of fame and adulation that few can imagine. This powerful message could easily apply to the galaxy of female Black luminaries including Beyoncé, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Mary J. Blige and others who refuse to be silent about the costs of being who they are in public and are adamant about saving some of who they are for themselves.