She never considered herself an “activist,” but Aretha Franklin did more for civil rights and blurring the lines of race than she could have known. A musical icon in the truest sense of the term, Franklin captivated the ears and hearts of a nation with her powerhouse voice for more than 50 years, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
Her signature song, “Respect,” a glorious and intense remake of Otis Redding’s anthem, will forever ring in our ears when we feel we aren’t receiving the consideration we deserve. In passing, Franklin stands as a reminder that our love for each other can be improved so much more effectively through joy rather than hate. Music like Aretha’s truly has the power to bring us together.
What is most remarkable about Franklin’s rise to fame is that she, an African-American woman living in the 1960s United States, faced more than a mountain of conflict and disinterest on her rise to the top, but it barely slowed her down.
Before the time of Franklin, Ray Charles, and Motown icons like The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and The Supremes, music remained mainly segregated. Like so many other things in pop culture, there was an unspoken understanding that soul music was intended for a specific part of the country’s population.
Franklin’s talent was unquestionable. Surely talent scout and record producer John Hammond knew he was in the presence of something truly special when he signed the young gospel singer to Columbia Records in 1960.
The famously strong-willed Franklin had been unwilling to yield to the ideas Columbia had for her image and marketability, so after years of lackluster efforts she moved on to Atlantic Records. There, Franklin found her niche singing rhythm and blues, citing the struggle of African-Americans from the time of slavery as a primary source for the richness and depth of her sound.
Shortly after signing with the label, she had her first number one hit, “I Never Loved a Man.” From that point forward, almost every Franklin recording became an instant soul classic. She was not the inventor of R&B, but her roots in gospel, and her particular blend of passion and talent cemented the genre into mainstream pop music, where it solidly remains today.
Franklin’s contributions extend far beyond the music industry. She sang at the inaugurations of three U.S. presidents. In an era largely considered difficult for women, especially those of color, she was a strong, successful role model.
The Queen of Soul now rests in the arms of her Precious Lord. Her music broke through all color barriers, moved an entire generation, and will last forever. Nothing but love, gratitude and RESPECT for you, Aretha.
— Kay Coles James (@KayColesJames) August 16, 2018
In 1968, she became only the second African-American woman to have been featured on the cover of Time magazine, and in 1987 she was the first ever female inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was the true Queen of Soul. Her voice and charisma forever changed the way we listen to music. She will be missed, but her music will live forever.