Aretha Franklin: Vivid Memories of a Soul Awakening

The Sultan, The King, and the Queen all share in common the same date of August 16. Babe Ruth, Elvis Presley, and now Aretha Franklin all passed on the same day, in 1948, 1977 and 2018 respectively.

 Photo by richard avedon - ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORKER

Photo by richard avedon - ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORKER

 

Ruth (Sultan of Swat) was arguably the greatest baseball player of all time. Elvis was the King of Rock ‘n Roll while the inspirational Franklin was, without question, the original Queen of Soul. Although widely expected, Aretha’s passing today at the age of 76 from pancreatic cancer was nonetheless a shock to the system, knowing that the most powerful and soulful voice of a generation was silenced.

I recall vivid memories of first watching gospel singer Mahalia Jackson belt out songs Sunday mornings on NBC and being mesmerized  by the incredibly soulful sounds of songs like “Didn’t it Rain”. But that was just a warm-up for what happened next. Jackson was a gifted singer, but it was Franklin who transcended gospel and became a pop music icon. She was a game changer.

Over the course of two albums and two years (1967-68) Aretha and her gospel-trained talents shattered popular radio and awakened the souls of millions who had never heard such an incredible artist. As eloquently written by L.A. Times music critic Richard Cromelin: “When Franklin’s clarion voice hit the airwaves in 1967, she seemed a force of nature, a voice with the force of a horn section that claimed full attention, whether lamenting love gone wrong or demanding “ree-ree-ree-ree-spect.”

The songs were instant classics - they sound as fresh and life-affirming today as they did 50 years ago: You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman), Respect, Do Right Woman, I Never Loved a Man, Soul Serenade, A Change is Gonna Come, You Send Me, Chain of Fools and my very favorite – Since You’ve Been Gone.

Aretha opened the floodgates and paved the way for such big female voices as Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston and Beyoncé. There’s a bit of Aretha bubbling to the surface on a number of songs by the British pop star, Adele. They all owe a big debt of gratitude to the Queen of Soul.

I hear all the tributes and understand the imprint Aretha had on society. For that, I am grateful. But what I am truly grateful for is what she brought to the music world. There was an energy, passion and brilliance to Aretha Franklin that came through loud and clear every time one of her songs came on the radio.

As a shy young kid, I was learning how to dance and meet girls when Respect and Since You’ve Been Gone graced the airwaves. Aretha Franklin helped me get there a lot quicker than I ever imagined. I had discovered soul. And, it was good.