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“Aretha” is a feminine name derived from the Greek “arête,” meaning beautiful, excellent, or virtuous. Over the last half-century however, it has been appropriated globally by the daughter of a Baptist preacher, one Aretha Franklin. Over the years, she has been endowed with various honorifics and titles, prominently the “Queen of Soul,” a title bestowed upon her by disk jockey Pervis Spann on stage in 1968.

 In the early morning of Aug. 16, 2018, the singer, songwriter and pianist who performed before heads of state, royalty, and the Pope died at the age of 76, surrounded by family and friends. She’d been in declining health recently, and had been placed in a hospice days before she expired. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

Born and Bred

Aretha Louise Franklin was born March 25, 1942 to the Rev. C.L. Franklin and Barbara Siggers appropriately enough, in the musical bastion of Memphis, Tenn. Eventually the family settled in Detroit, MI., but her parent’s union was reportedly strained due to the father’s infidelity, and her mother eventually moved away to Buffalo, N.Y. Daddy Franklin was a celebrity in his own right, possessing a fine singing voice, but more importantly a prominent minister and civil rights leader, as socially progressive as he was promiscuous. An early proponent of what became known as “Black-liberation theology,” he continued in the itinerant preaching circuit tradition, delivering sermons throughout the country when not at the pulpit of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. Earning a tidy income from his oratory and record sells of sermons (one of which is preserved in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress), the reverend counted Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King as intimates and houseguests. Also in his social circle were legendary gospel singers Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, who acted as surrogate mothers and nurtured young Aretha’s musical development.

Performing on her father’s preaching tours, the budding songstress was courted by soul pioneer Sam Cooke (whom she aspired to follow by crossing over to pop music) at RCA, and Motown’s Berry Gordy before going to Columbia Records at 18. Interestingly enough, she floundered while signed to Columbia. It’s Artist and Repertoire man, Mitch Miller (who’d passed on signing rock icons The Beatles, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley) stifled her gospel roots and attempted to shape her into the mold of mainstream pop artists Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and other bestselling vocalists on the Columbia roster.

Rebirth

“I took her to church, sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself.”                                               -Jerry Wexler

Lured over to the Atlantic label by Turkish immigrant turned music executive Ahmet Ertegun (who developed an appreciation for Black music as a school boy in Washington, D.C.), she journeyed south to the historic Muscle Shoals (Alabama) FAME studio under the direction of producer Jerry Wexler, to record what came to be the album “I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You.” Abetted by tenor sax giant King Curtis and her sisters Carolyn and Erma on backing vocals (along with cousin Cissy Houston), she turned vinyl into magic, with the help of some country rooted session men assembled by recording legend Rick Hall.

During this legendary recording session, her first husband and manager, Ted White, got into a (possibly racially motivated) brawl with Hall, with the couple leaving town after completing just one song. Wexler was able to patch things up so that the album could be completed.

One of the album’s tracks started out as a “cover” of a song originally composed and performed by Otis Redding, which showcases Franklin’s knack for transforming a song and making it her own. Originally a rocking, testosterone laced ode to virility in the style Redding was known for, Aretha revamped the tune from top to bottom, resulting in an anthem for the Civil and Women’s Rights movements.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Find out what it means to me

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Take care … TCB

Sock it to me, Sock it to me, Sock it to me, Sock it to me

Sisters Carolyn and Erma chant the refrain “Re Re Re” (the family pet name for Aretha) in the background, while “TCB” (Take Care of Business) was a slogan popular in the Black community at the time. Similarly, “Sock it to me” was a phase common in Detroit, and later entered the lexicon as comedian Judy Carne would utter it on the “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in” TV show while dressed in a mini skirt, giving it a sexual connotation.

Her career re-invigorated, the accolades never stopped. She became the first Black woman on the cover of Time Magazine on June 28 1968. Her hometown designated February 16 as “Aretha Franklin Day,” and her voice was declared a “Natural Resource” by the State of Michigan. In 1968, the Recording Academy initiated a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, which Aretha won and continued to win for the next 7 years of its existence. She would eventually wind up winning this award 11 times.

The Anointed One

With hundreds of Black churches and secular venues across the country, arguably thousands of women are endowed with exceptional voices. Bronx native Michael Anthony Neal, a cultural scholar currently on the faculty at Duke University, attempts to explain what set Franklin apart from so many others.

“She transcended genre,” he says.

As the 1960s progressed, her popularity prompted the powers that be to push her into categories outside her “comfort zone” of soul and gospel, such as show tunes. Neal cites her rendition of the 1964 Barbara Streisand tune “People,” from the Broadway musical “Funny Girl.”

“Had she been White, she would have been Barbara Streisand,” he said.

As the 1998 Grammys were underway, operatic superstar Luciano Pavarotti was slated to perform “Nessun Dorma,” a notoriously difficult aria written for a male tenor (which Pavarotti was). At the last minute, the classical Maestro became ill, and had to bow out, sending show organizers into crisis mode. Franklin, due to be on the telecast in a non-singing appearance, agreed to fill in without rehearsing, and brought the house down.

Anyone seeking further validation of the Diva’s versatility might check out her rendition of “The Weight” (originally by country rock group “The Band”) from her 1969 album “This Girl’s In Love with you.” Her gospel foundation meshes perfectly with the biblical allusions in its lyrics supported by impeccable slide guitar work by Duane Allman, a man more commonly associated with southern rock.

“She was the first artist I ever heard,” Neal remembers, crediting her with providing the soundtrack for his life, starting when he saw her live at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

“Respect” eased her into the national conversation about equality, abetted by her family ties with its leading proponents. Following the tragic death of Martin Luther King, Aretha volunteered to sing “Precious Lord” (reportedly King’s favorite tune) at the fallen man’s funeral.

These landmark performances were likely seasoned with regular episodes of sorrow in the singer’s life. A mother at 12, by 15 she was saddled with two sons fathered by different men. She had a third son with White, her first husband in a union that was marred by physical and verbal conflict. A second marriage to actor Glynn Thurman brought a measure of stability, but also ended in divorce. Her beloved father was shot during a robbery attempt, falling into a coma for five years, until his death in 1984. Her relationships with her sisters, both talented vocalists like Aretha, was consumed by more then the usual sibling rivalry.

As befitting a Diva, her personality quarks were legendary. Smarting from being “stiffed” early in her career by unscrupulous promoters (like many Black entertainers), she demanded payment upfront for singing engagements, allegedly performing on stage purse in hand, stuffed with wads of cash. A rocky trip on a small plane made her swear off flying in 1984, curtailing performances aboard, and severely limiting touring within the United States.

Through it all, the stellar performances continued. At New York’s Kennedy Center in 2015, Aretha’s jaw-dropping interpretation of “A Natural Woman,” brought President Barack Obama to tears. Meanwhile, up in a balcony was Carole King, the song’s composer, listening to a tune she’d arguably heard Aretha sing dozens of times. And yet, in this venue, Aretha pulled out all the stops, making the song brand new, and leaving King speechless, her mouth open in astonishment.

In a 2016 interview with Our Weekly Contributor Carol Ozemhoya recalled Aretha’s performance vividly.

“She didn’t know I was going to be there until I walked on stage,” she recalled.

“The response was unbelievable. That was in the top three of my career, and I have had many great nights, but that was the icing on the cake.”

Aretha Franklin’s funeral is slated for Aug. 31 at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple. Public viewings will be held Aug. 28-29 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.