From now on, I don’t want you listenin’ to Guns N’ Roses an’ The Soup Dragons. I want a strict diet of James Brown for the growls, Otis Redding for the moans, Smokey Robinson for the whines, and Aretha for the whole lot put together.
—The Commitments (1991), screenplay by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, and Roddy Doyle
For me, there always was Aretha Franklin. I was too young to experience the astonishment of her emergence, this dynamo with a singing voice that could topple structures and sturdy men. The icon was already in place, the inarguable legend already burnished and permanent. “Respect” was her song, not something she’d taken away from Otis Redding. Never mind that he recorded it first. Never mind that he wrote it. Never mind that he was one of the greatest soul singers of all time. His version sounded like an ill-advised cover. I mean no disrespect to Redding in that observation. Famously, he knew it, too.
Franklin grew up singing gospel songs, and she brought the authority of the pulpit to whatever she sang. She dipped into pop, blues, jazz, R&B, always with elegance and certainty. Even a drab disco pander got an unmistakable jolt of life if Franklin was at the microphone. I’ve no idea if she gave her all in every performance. Her skill and talent were so beyond measure that a sliver of it exceeded what practically every other singer had to give.
The hit singles and shiny awards can be tallied up, but those are incidental. Franklin was nothing less than the voice of her time, operating with an elusive alchemy that channeled the nation’s prosperity and tumult into her performances, into her very presence. She was our vocalist laureate. She was one of those tapped to sing at Martin Luther King’s funeral, then returned to the same song decades later, on the occasion of the dedication of the Washington memorial to the great man. The power of her voice was diminished not one iota. When she sang one of her most famous songs at the Kennedy Center Honors, paying tribute to honors recipient Carole King, Franklin famous moved President Barack Obama to tears, a feat that brought her great satisfaction. “The cool cat wept!” she told The New Yorker‘s David Remnick. “I loved that.”
For the same article, Obama reflected on precisely why Franklin was so special, why the live rendering of a single song could stir such deep emotions.
“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope,” Obama said. “American history wells up when Aretha sings.”
The history wells up because Franklin lived it, not in the presence of famous moments, but in experiencing the contradictions that define the nation. She was deeply guarded about her personal life and yet an impeccably forthright performer, giving the impression that her emotions were ladled into every note. She was generous, but firmly committed to taking — and keeping — what was hers. She was confident of her earned place of reverence in the culture, but alert to every slight. She even embodied the intermingling of capitalism and religion that is the truest lifeblood of the country. The church largely defined Franklin’s being, but she was merciless in commerce, insisting on advance cash payments and rarely letting the money evade her gaze during performances. Stuffed with bills, her purse was often brought on stage.
Franklin was everything we are, in all our messiness and glory, flaws and beauty. She was the whole lot put together.