Death may have snatched away the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin but not her imprints on music scene, writes Yinka Olatunbosun
It was only a matter of time. The news of the impending death of the world-acclaimed Queen of Soul, Aretha Louise Franklin, had been travelling at a super-sonic speed for days with the world watching, helplessly. Finally, she took a bow on August 16 after a protracted battle with pancreatic cancer. This 18-time Grammy Award winner was more than just a pianist, singer and feminist, she was the world’s blueprint for soul music artistry.
“In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart,” according to a statement released by her family to CNN. “We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”
“We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world,” the family’s statement added. “Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”
Franklin’s voice vehemently intruded into normal radio broadcasts back in the 1980s. It would nip plans to tune to another station in the bud. It was as though there was a conspiracy in those days to play her music on radio. There was no Google then to ask why Franklin’s voice was everywhere, even on television shows like Soul Train. Dedicating an exercise book to writing down songs and listening to OAPs for the corresponding names at that time when presenters had the habit of introducing the song and the recording label before airing it seemed to be the only alternative. In later years, it became clear that good music earns a natural ubiquitous status, with massive airplays and aggressive ascension on the music charts.
Franklin made such tremendous impact in music cultural life with her medley of hit songs like “Respect”, “Think”, “(You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman)”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”, and the collaborative song, “A Rose Is Still a Rose”. Like most African-American musicians, she cut her teeth in music from the church, performing gospel songs at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan where her father was a minister. She lost her mother at 10 and was raised by her grandmother. She learnt to play the piano by ear and grew thick skin to comments and questions about her early pregnancy. She was reportedly pregnant at 12 and by 15, had two children. She would later be twice her lifetime a bride, and blessed with two more children. Her father was a charismatic preacher who attracted a lot of celebrities to their home. One of them was Clara Ward, whom Franklin took as a role model.
Till her death, Franklin would be described fondly and in fact as “Michigan’s Natural Resource” with no disrespect to another Detroit ambassador, Eminem, who is a multiple Grammy winner and first rapper to win an Original Song award at the Oscars, Eminem.
Back to Franklin, she was a great friend to the civil rights’ activist, Martin Luther King. She broke into mainstream music with songs about women liberation. A case in point is her signature song, “Respect”, released in 1967, a period that was marked by civil right movements in United States of America. It was like a maternal necessity on Franklin’s part to lend a voice to social liberation at the tempo and crescendo that was compatible with her mezzo-soprano. That explains songs like “Spanish Harlem”, “Young, Gifted and Black” and “Lady Soul”.
The commercial success was a crowning touch to her hard work in and out of the studios, switching from Columbia to Atlantic records for the good stuff. She had an enviable portfolio: 41 studio albums, 112 singles on Billboard, 17 top-ten singles, 45 songs on top 40 music chart, 100 R&B entries, 20 number one R&B singles, remaining the most charted female artist in the Billboard chart history. She won 18 Grammy awards, eight of which was in the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance category, in consecutive years. It meant that from 1968 till 1975, any artist nominated in that same category with her must come to the Grammys with handkerchief.
Franklin will be remembered as one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with over 75million records sold worldwide. She is arguably the most decorated female artist of all time, perhaps, owing much to a scandal free career, prestigious performances before a President and a Pope. In 2005, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George Bush and a National Medal of Arts from President Clinton. Prior to that, in 1979, she received a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Grammy Hall of Fame.
If those details are not impressive enough, perhaps the video of her 2015 performance at Kennedy Centre Honors online would dispel all doubts. Her rousing vocal performance evoked emotions in the audience including former President Barack Obama, who couldn’t help a few tears. Hitting the piano with a profound sense of possession to accompany the song, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”, she left the audience in a standing ovation situation.
Franklin’s one of the few women of colour to have made it to the cover of Time Magazine in her lifetime. One amazing fact about Franklin was her unwavering interest in new music artists. She was adopted as an honorary aunt by the late R&B diva, Whitney Houston who called her “Auntie Ree”. Recently, she did a cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” which travelled up the music charts upon its release. Before then, she worked with Lauryn Hill in “A Rose is Still A Rose”, which is a song to cheer up a woman who is always falling into bad relationships. The song has some ingredients of Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians’ song, “What I Am” and was her last top 40 hit song.
Franklin’s health decline started in 2010 when it was first reported that she underwent a surgery for an unknown ailment. She initially debunked the rumours about the pancreatic cancer that was making rounds in news media.
She embarked on a weight loss regimen because she gained weight after she quit smoking in 1992. Her post-surgery recovery necessitated cancelled shows, less tours and less performances. Her battle for life started again last year and since the beginning of this year, there has been calls to pray for Aretha Franklin.
The story of her life had inspired biographers one of whom is David Ritz, who said in an interview that it took 18 years to get Franklin to work on her biography and autobiography. She had left the world in awe, leaving no question on her voice being a symbol of civil rights and equality.
Meanwhile, in a tribute deemed disrespectful to the music icon, the US President Donald Trump thanked the late musician for working for him before alluding to her exploits.
“I want to begin today by expressing my condolences to the family of a person I knew well. She worked for me on numerous occasions. She was terrific – Aretha Franklin – on her passing,” Trump was quoted to have said at a White House cabinet meeting.
This was before he followed up with the following tribute: “She’s brought joy to millions of lives and her extraordinary legacy will thrive and inspire many generations to come. She was given a great gift from God – her voice, and she used it well. People loved Aretha. She was a special woman. So just want to pass on my warmest best wishes and sympathies to her family.”