Pictured: Aretha singing at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Her hat got about as much press as her performance. Aretha, like her father, was a die-hard Democrat and like a lot of us who were hopelessly naive, saw Obama’s inauguration as the possible beginning of a post-racial society.
You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing. Aretha has everything — the power, the technique.
She is honest with everything she says. Everything she’s thinking or dealing with is all in the music, from “Chain of Fools” to “Respect” to her live performances. And she has total confidence; she does not waver at all. I think her gospel base brings that confidence because in gospel they do not play around — they’re all about chops, who has the vocal runs. This is no game to her. – Mary J. Blige on Aretha’s nomination by Rolling Stone as Greatest Singer of All Time.
Franklin’s success expanded during the early 1970s, during which she had hits with “Spanish Harlem” and “Day Dreaming.” By 1971 she was no longer with the white cats from Muscle Shoals but with black musicians like Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey, both of whom would later play with Steely Dan.
Here’s this great rhythm section on the Aretha-penned funkfest “Rock Steady” (with Donny Hathaway on electric piano and organ):
But like all pop artists – no matter how great – Aretha’s star was shining a little dimmer by the mid-’70s. She was still a force in music but pop music is fickle and there was a new generation of R&B stars and disco was raising its ugly head.
Aretha did a soundtrack to a not-so-well-received movie called Sparkle, which was loosely based on the Supremes. (An idea better realized in Dream Girls.) The album was written and produced by one of Aretha’s heroes, Curtis Mayfield.
This album provided Aretha’s last top 40 hit of the ’70s, “Something He Can Feel.”
Her next three albums bombed and by 1979, she and Atlantic Records parted company. Aretha then signed with Arista Records and gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth.
Aretha always had her sights on being a movie star but somehow it never quite happened. She did play a role in the 1980 Blues Brothers movie singing her tune “Think.” Personally, I always found it a little demeaning that they got her to play a soul food proprietor. But despite that, it’s fun to see her in a movie, here with her “husband,” guitar great Matt Murphy. (Who died just a few months ago.)
“The Blues Brothers? Shit. They still owe you money, fool:”
By the early ’80s, except for a few songs here and there, Aretha was no longer a force on the charts. The sound of R&B had changed, she was in her “ancient” 40’s and the pop world seemed to pass her by. A lot of her contemporaries wanted her to just ditch Top 40 and go back to being a jazz/blues/gospel singer. But whatever the drive was that led her to the top remained unabated and she still wanted to be the Queen, still wanted to have hits.
Franklin achieved a gold record—for the first time in seven years—with the 1982 album Jump to It. The album’s title track was her first top-40 single on the pop charts in six years. If you listen to it, you’ll see that she’s very much in the disco/funk period of that time. Personally, this is not my thing but well, it’s part of her story:
By 1982, Aretha had moved back to Detroit where she would remain for the rest of her life. She had developed a fear of flying and went everywhere by bus or train, turning down gigs in Europe. Even though her name was not in the paper as much as it used to be, she still wanted to be seen as a major player, often holding parties at her house and inviting local celebrities.
Of her, her long-time booking agent Ruth Bowen said, “Aretha does not want to look at herself. She doesn’t want to critique herself. The result is that nothing changes for her. She’s the hardest headed woman since Eve ate the apple. What it comes down to is this: no one can tell Aretha shit.”
In 1985, fully 24 years after her first album, she had a pretty big hit with an album called Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (inspired by flirting. Aretha always liked her men.) “Freeway of Love” was a pretty big hit and this was her first Arista platinum album.
“Freeway” (featuring Clarence Clemons on sax) is a pretty catchy song. The album was produced by Narada Michael Walden who in a previous life had been a drummer for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. She also did a song called “Push” with Peter Wolf (!) and I’ll spare you that one. For the record, Aretha also did a version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” for a similarly-titled Whoopi Goldberg movie.
In 1987. Aretha released another gospel album called One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. Unlike Amazing Grace from 15 years before, Aretha decided to direct and produce this thing herself. Critics complained that there was too much in-between-song chatter and it didn’t sell nearly as well. Franklin’s 1991 album, What You See is What You Sweat, was a bomb. Her final top 40 single was 1998’s “A Rose Is Still a Rose.” The album of the same name was released after the single. It sold in excess of 500,000 copies; earning a gold album.
The song was written and produced by Lauryn Hill and has a hip-hop flavor. Props to Ree for staying current. Listen carefully and the chorus sounds like “Love The One You’re With:”
Aretha had taken on pretty much every type of music except one – opera. At the 1998 Grammy Awards, Luciano Pavarotti was scheduled to sing “Nessun Dorma,” a song about which I confess I know nothing other than the fact that Jeff Beck did an instrumental version of it. (I’m not an opera fan in the least.) But he was too sick to perform and the producers asked Aretha if she could sing it. Fortunately, she’d done so a few nights prior and so, not only performed it but kept it as part of her show.
In 1999, her autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots, with David Ritz was published in 1999. Her 2003 album So Damn Happy provided her a Grammy for the song “Wonderful,” giving her the distinction of having chart hits in five consecutive decades. She did three more albums after that (one a Christmas album), her final album being 2014’s Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.
Let’s go full circle here and finish with the tune “Teach Me Tonight” originally performed by jazz singer Dinah Washington. This is probably the most traditional tune on the album with a really nice uncredited sax solo. Amy Winehouse was one of many who covered this tune:
Wikipedia: “On August 13, 2018, Franklin was reported to be gravely ill at her home in Detroit. She was under hospice care and surrounded by friends and family. Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson and ex-husband Glynn Turman visited her on her deathbed. Franklin died at her home on August 16, 2018, aged 76. The cause of death was a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor (pNET), though widely misreported as pancreatic cancer, a different disease.”
Her funeral was a worldwide phenomenon and as the New York Times reported, “Even at Her Funeral Celebrations, Aretha Franklin was the Height of Glamor.” Her legion of fans reveled in the fact that the always fashion-conscious Ms. Franklin was dressed each day in different outfits starting with a lacy crimson gown and then being “laid to rest in a full-length gold dress, with, of course, sparkling gold-sequined heels to match.”
Stats: Aretha Franklin recorded 112 charted singles on Billboard, including 77 Hot 100 entries, 17 top-ten pop singles, 100 R&B entries, and 20 number-one R&B singles, becoming the most charted female artist in history.
She won 18 Grammy Awards, including the first eight awards given for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance from 1968 through to 1975, and she is one of the best-selling musical artists of all time, having sold more than 75 million records worldwide.
Franklin received numerous honors throughout her career, including a 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the first female performer to be inducted, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 1994, Aretha received both a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and Kennedy Center Honors. She was inducted to the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005 and to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2012. In 2010 Rolling Stone magazine ranked her number one on their list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and number nine on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. (In her later shows, as part of the backdrop she would feature the Rolling Stone cover.)
Long Live The Queen.
Sources Wikipedia, New York Times, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. David Ritz. Little, Brown and Company (October 28, 2014)