Aretha Franklin, soul music legend, died at her home in Detroit today at the age of 76.
Before the word ‘diva’ came into play in popular music, there was Aretha Franklin. The American music great was the heart-rending voice that enraptured generations and embodied the righteousness and agony of soul music.
Franklin’s success not only played a major role in taking the genre – which traces its roots to African American churches – to the masses, but also shaped following generations of pop-stars to come.
Without the towering strength and flexibility of Franklin’s mezzo voice, there would be no Whitney Houston, Beyoncé or Adele – all of whom attributed her as an inspiration.
Mercurial and fiercely private, Franklin rarely spoke to the press and thus cultivated an enigmatic aura until her death – it is a principle currently employed by Beyoncé to great effect.
That said, flashes of Franklin’s wit and competitive spirit abounded throughout her career, most notably in her winning appearance in the movie-musical The Blues Brothers and her much-publicised feud with the late Natalie Cole.
But the latter was a mere ripple in a life defined by an artistry whose legacy earned her the title of Queen of Soul.
Daughter of a preacher man
Born in the US music citadel of Memphis, Franklin was the daughter of Clarence La Vaughn, was a renowned preacher whose “million-dollar voice” had him crisscrossing the country delivering sermons.
It was only after her mother’s death that a 14-year-old Franklin began singing at church, her debut performance was the hymn Jesus Be a Fence Around Me. Franklin honed her skills when her father took her on the road as part of his Gospel Caravan tour of neighbouring churches and eventually signed her to a record label. Her debut album, Songs of Faith was released in 1956 with singles Never Grow Old and Precious Lord, Take My Hand proving a hit on gospel radio.
It is when Franklin moved to secular music that she proved her mark. Her first non-gospel release, 1961’s Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo was home to Won’t Be Long, Franklin’s first song to crack the pop charts. Franklin enjoyed the wide berth that secular music afforded her and tackled a lot of styles ranging from standards and blues to doo-wop and R&B. The 1962 jazz-pop of Rock-a-Bye was her first international hit by topping the charts in Australia and Canada.
The golden years
It all set her up for a near 15-year-run of unrivalled dominance that began in 1967. That year she released her fiery cover of Otis Redding’s Respect, which was another worldwide hit, and followed it up with more groundbreaking singles such as her cover of Carol King’s You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman. The following year she released some of her most essential albums, including Lady Soul and Aretha Now. She continued her form in the 1970’s with more notable hits Spanish Harlem and Day Dreaming in addition to the critically adored album Young Gifted and Black. Franklin also returned to her musical roots with the 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace which sold over two million albums.
A dip in fortunes
By the mid-1970’s, the success began to wane with Franklin’s singles only confined to the niche RnB charts and albums such as 1979’s Almighty Fire and La Diva selling poorly. Franklin recovered some of her commercial standing in the 1980’s and with a string of well-received albums that included masterly interpretations of tracks by Sam and Dave (Hold on I’m Coming) and Otis Redding (I Can’t Turn You Loose).
From the 1990’s and on to her death, Franklin’s career took on a more glacial pace with sporadic albums including the Christmas themed release (2003's This Christmas, Aretha) and a collection of pop-standard covers with 2014's Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. Her last album, last year's A Brand New Me, had her pre-recorded vocals mixed with new instrumentation by London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Her feud with Natalie Cole
While Franklin often expressed herself through her music, she wasn't timid in speaking her mind. This is what a young Natalie Cole found out when she entered the industry courtesy of her big selling debut album, 1975's classic Inseparable. With Franklin’s commercial appeal on the wane at the time, the media speculated that Cole could be the heir to the throne. It was a suggestion that irked Franklin. "The first time I saw Aretha was at an industry banquet,” Cole later told Franklin biographer David Ritz. “She gave me an icy stare and turned her back on me. It took me weeks to recover.”
Speaking to The National in 2012, Cole confirmed there was rivalry between the two singers. "But that was something the press were able to create," she said. "Aretha was caught off guard. she was friendly and an icon to me. But people started pitting me against her. I was young and impressionable and people were trying to keep us apart. I think both of us were very impacted: me, out of naiveté and she felt like she was being attacked, that I was some chick coming along to take her spot. Nobody takes Aretha's spot."
The beef was eventually squashed with Franklin paying tribute to Cole upon her passing in 2016 from heart failure.
“I had to hold back the tears,” Franklin said in a statement. “She fought for so long. She was one of the greatest singers of our time. She represented the Cole legend of excellence and class quite well.”
While the news of Franklin’s death remains fresh with an outpouring of tributes to come from the music industry, Franklin has been on the receiving end of deserved acclaim towards the end of her life.
Her six-decade body of work honoured in the 2011 Grammy Awards with her songs performed by a new generation of singers including Christina Aguilera and Florence Welch.
In 2015, she moved former US president Obama to tears with her startling rendition of You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman at the Kennedy Centre Honours.
“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."
Franklin may be gone, but her history is set to be retold. In January, it was announced that an upcoming biopic will be produced with Oscar winning actress and singer Jennifer Hudson taking on the role of Franklin. With the project set to taking on a more important air now that Franklin is gone, Hudson should take comfort in the fact that she was chosen for the role by the diva herself.
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