I’m going to ask you to do something. Crank up ‘Lady Soul’ on the music player of your choice, close your eyes, kick back and hear for yourself the magic of that Muscle Shoals sound. Discover why everyone from Barrack Obama to Keith Richards pays tribute to this legendary figure, who I hope needs no introduction.
But of all the tributes that have flown since that sad 16th of August, The Reverend Jesse Jackson put it best when he simply said that, “Earth has lost a lot. Heaven’s choir has gained a new lead singer.”
If that’s the case, then Aretha Franklin has beautifully arrived full circle from her early days of singing the Gospel at New Bethel Church in Detroit.
This rare talent was signed by Colombia Records at the age of eighteen, who never really quite realised what they had in front of them and for want of a little bit of respect, Aretha jumped ship to Atlantic Records. Atlantic promptly shipped her off to Alabama, of all places, and insisted that she sit down with the Muscle Shoals Session Band.
All Atlantic had to do was bottle the lightning that resulted from placing these enormously talented people in the same recording studio together and the rest, as they say, was history.
Propelled by the Shoals rhythm section and armed with the voice of God herself, not only did Aretha’s roof lifting performances on tracks such as “Respect” and “Spanish Harlem” set the bar for soul music, but they saw her become an icon for the civil rights movement and feminism overnight.
Plenty of better writers than I have waffled on already about Aretha Franklin’s music. The undeniable power of it doesn’t need repeating here. Instead, what’s worth pointing out is that for many, disadvantage and oppression are simply things we hear about on the news.
Yet for Aretha Franklin, as a black single mother in 1960s America, these things were a daily reality. What ought to be remembered is how she smashed through those institutionalised barriers like a wrecking ball and went on to become the voice of her generation.
Forget about the music, that pre-packaged product sold by white guys in suits at record companies. Put those 18 Grammy Awards out of your head for just a few moments.
Recall instead the time she offered to put up bail for Angela Davies or how she lent her voice to the civil rights movement, playing at a dozen live shows in support of Martin Luther’s King tour across eleven cities. In a 1970 interview with Jet magazine, Aretha Franklin said, “I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”. Both Dr. King and Reverend Jackson have acknowledged that without the Queen of Soul’s royal underwriting of their campaigns, they just wouldn’t have been possible.
Soul music these days is mostly a museum piece from the past, with the occasional dusting off every few years as new artists rediscover their roots. In recalling history, soul isn’t too distinct from Latin: An extinct language once spoken by people who seemed larger in life than the mere mortals of the present. More than just a coincidental trend that happened to exist at the same time as the civil rights battles, soul music was another front in the movement.
We’re burying more and more of the old royalty these days and in the traditions of the black gospel, the passing of elders is as much a time for joy as it is for sadness. Yet it’s worth taking a step back and asking yourself.
What does it mean to bury the Queen of Soul?