And now, it is our turn to pay respect.
Broadcast outlets and online sites are overwhelmed with tributes and accolades from all corners of Earth in praise of Detroit’s own Aretha Franklin, who died here at the age of 76 after a lengthy battle with pancreatic cancer. You haven’t heard this much of Aretha’s music played at one time since the ‘60s. Her albums are topping the sales charts on Amazon. SiriusXM has devoted an entire channel exclusively to her majestic voice (“Soul Town,” Channel 49).
“In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade,” former President Barack Obama wrote on Twitter. “Our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.”
Aretha never “worked for” Obama, but she performed at his first inauguration. And who could ever forget that hat, the headpiece that made Detroit’s Mr. Song world famous?
At a point it becomes difficult to sift through the torrent of appreciations. The Queen of Soul was not only world renowned, she clearly was also world admired. Actual queens don’t receive this kind of emotional outpouring. However, here is the only fact you need to remember when assessing the impact and legacy of Aretha Franklin:
She was the first woman ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ponder that for a moment. A cherub-cheeked little black girl, growing up singing the great hymns of the church for her father, the legendary Reverend C.L. Franklin, nurtured and encouraged by the congregation of New Bethel Baptist Church not far from where you are right now, grew up to be the first female enshrined in a world pantheon typically reserved for headbangers, rockabilly stars and the Beatles. What are the odds?
That speaks to a universality, a voice singularly and uniquely unlike any other, one that transcended race and genres and genders and prejudices to speak directly to the heart. It was a voice that conveyed both pain and passion, the struggle for pride and self-worth that challenges us all. When she released “Respect,” a song written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, Aretha made it her own, transforming it from a workingman’s request for his woman to appreciate all he’s given her to a demanding rallying cry for women and people of color everywhere. She made all women feel like a natural woman.
Her training and upbringing were in gospel (she was eventually inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 2012), but Aretha’s voice defied categorization. No less a non-gospel authority than Rolling Stone magazine ranked her No. 1 among the 100 greatest vocalists of all time. She earned a staggering total of 18 Grammy Awards.
Hers was not an easy life by any means — a broken home, two children by the age of 15, tumultuous marriages, her father in a coma for five years before passing, the deaths of her brother-manager Cecil and sister Carolyn to cancer – yet it’s probable that all those tragedies informed her music in undeniable ways. Her impressive gifts as a pianist and songwriter were forever overshadowed by that extraordinary voice.
I have spent more than 30 years as a writer and journalist in Detroit, mostly covering contemporary music, yet I never had the opportunity to meet or interview Aretha. This is neither the time nor place to detail why – I will do that soon in my media blog, Big Glowing Box – but suffice to say it involved her headlining one of those huge Cobo Center R&B extravaganzas of the ‘80s (you know, where Frankie Beverly and Maze were always the middle act), a bizarre case of mistaken identity and Cecil organizing a picket line campaign to have me run out of town. Given Aretha’s notorious mistrust of the media, any possibility of future contact was forever shattered.
So much to my surprise, when I heard the breaking news of her passing over my car radio, I shed a tear. I did not expect to. But in a place deep down inside, I realized how much her music – that voice – meant to me throughout my life. My Queen was dead.
Long live the soul.
Jim McFarlin is a native Detroiter and a veteran entertainment journalist.