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Since Ray Charles created Soul music in the mid-1950s by combining Gospel ecstacy with the secular (and sexual) themes of the Blues, the genre has given us almost an embarrassment of astonishing vocalists. Charles himself, Smokey Robinson, David Ruffin, Chaka Khan, Otis Redding, Tina Turner, Amy Winehouse – it has always been a singer’s music.

But the one who shone over all of them was Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul, who passed away this week. Media – mainstream and social – was numb with grief while ablaze with outpourings of love for Aretha, from an incoherent Donald Trump to Franklin’s contemporaries, as well as current stars from all genres.

This was no mere celebrity passing. Since her breakthrough hit, 1967’s ‘Respect’, her music came to be a cultural signifier.

‘Respect’ was perfectly timed. It enlarged composer Otis Redding’s original tired-man narrative while sassily flipping it’s meaning. It resonated strongly with the women’s movement and the civil rights movement, and the general late 60’s right-on vibe. That is why she is iconic – like Dylan, Beatles, Bowie, the Sex Pistols and Nirvana – a signifier of something far more than just the music. Oh, and it was a bitchin’ piece of music, too. ZPlXzR

Franklin’s catalogue contains the same proportion of missteps of any artist with equal longevity, but at her best she was utterly unbeatable. Often heartstoppingly so.

Prior to her success at Atlantic Records, she had been with Columbia, who saw her as a piano-playing Gospel and Blues artist. Her later classic Atlantic sides, under producer Jerry Wexler brought her music up to date, but never tried to leach out the Blues, or especially the Gospel, from that remarkable voice.

Franklin’s voice came from the wounded heart, much like Billie Holliday before her and Janis Joplin after. She was singing for everywoman, and by extension, everyman. But unlike the raw, excruciating hurts of Holliday and Joplin, Aretha’s bell of a voice rang clear and proud, a spirit not to be bowed.

‘Respect’ is strident and builds to a righteous Gospel blast over a simmering, hip-rolling groove. By contrast, Franklins’ reading of Burt Bacharach’s ‘Say A Little Prayer’ is almost introverted, her bell voice pealing softly and wistfully in its small suburban tower. Hers was a vocal scope that should be a lesson to too many current ‘soul’ singers who entirely miss the point of Soul.

A personal note: A few years back, a band I played in was asked to pepper our set with Top 40 material for a regular gig. I agreed but, ever contrary,  brought in songs from the Top 40 of the late 60s. One was ‘Respect’. I wrote a head chart and brought it to the band in rehearsal. From the first note our singer – one of the finest I have ever worked with and one with a flawless top register – shook her head and said “I can’t get up there”. So we dropped the key. And dropped it… and dropped it…

This small episode confirmed to me in the real world what I had always known – that Aretha Franklin’s voice was something supernatural. The effortlessness in musical areas many singers would blanche at, the steely control which came across as silken flow, the absolute immersion in a song’s meaning and message – any song Franklin covered, such as Bacharach/David’s “Prayer” mentioned above, she owned thereafter and for ever more.

Her influence is, and will always be immeasurable. And not only musically – she wore her mantle as a spokesperson and activist regally and, I am sure, inspired many get to their feet in life.

Goodbye, Aretha Franklin. There will never be another true Queen of Soul. You took us higher. Long live the Queen.

 

 

 

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