Almost everything that’s being written about Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday, has been right. She was a civil rights and feminist icon, and she changed American popular vocal style. She brought the improvisational emotion and chord changes of the black church into the pop mainstream, but to do so, she called on many more aspects of America’s fantastically varied social and musical culture. To understand why, it’s worth looking at what had to happen for her to record the song that made more difference for her—and the country—than any other.
“Respect”—who can say “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” without hearing her voice?—was the turning point, the essence of her acknowledged golden years from 1967–70 on Atlantic Records. Those golden years were by no means inevitable, her immense talent notwithstanding. Franklin spent her teenage years touring the country with the top gospel and rhythm-and-blues singers (especially her acknowledged mentor, singer and piano player Clara Ward of the Ward Singers), who were regular visitors at the Detroit home of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, whose recorded sermons were best sellers. But Aretha had taken a wrong turn—into the persona of a nightclub singer, recording such bland, mismatched standards as “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”—during six lost years with Columbia Records. Yet within two years after recording her first Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, she was known internationally as Lady Soul, and also, in the ghetto, as “Sister Re”—a play on “Respect.”
The transformation is a classic story of American cultural fusion, involving crucially the man whom she acknowledged as having changed her life, producer Jerry Wexler, co-founder of Atlantic Records. A Jew from Manhattan’s Washington Heights, whose partner, Ahmet Ertegun, was the aristocratic son of a Turkish diplomat, Wexler was steeped in black music. He told Aretha to “drop the Judy Garland act” and “go back to church.” Even before he met her, he knew that the Reverend C.L. Franklin had a daughter “whose voice could move mountains.” Wexler, who actually invented the term “rhythm-and-blues” in 1949 as a replacement for “race music” in Billboard, encouraged her to forget what she thought white audiences wanted to hear, and draw instead on her gospel roots. In the process, he liberated her to speak to an America finally ready to listen.
Much more had to happen for the album to come together, however, than Wexler’s direction alone. On every song on the record, Aretha played piano, her blues/gospel rhythms driving every song; her piano-playing combined an incredible range of influences, from Ray Charles to Clara Ward to Art Tatum (another visitor at the Franklin home in Detroit). Wexler freed her from light-orchestral back-up musicians, teaming her with one of the most important rhythm-and-horn session groups in American music history. The all-white Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was the house band at FAME Studios in northwestern Alabama, founded by legendary producer Rick Hall, also white. Commenting on running a “colorblind” studio in the segregated South, Hall wrote, “It was a dangerous time, but the studio was a safe haven where blacks and whites could work together in musical harmony.” This group of white Southerners—steeped in country-western, blues, and gospel music—understood how to follow the lead of the Memphis-born Aretha. As Wexler wrote in his brilliant liner notes to “I Never Loved a Man”—written before “Respect” was released as a single—“when we recorded the sides in this album, there was one unvarying reaction: every time Aretha began a song, the musicians would shake their heads in wonder. . . . Producers, engineers and musicians alike were entranced by Aretha’s purity of tone, her tremendous feeling for inspired variation and her unparalleled dynamics.”
“Respect” became an iconic statement of feminist empowerment, but it required Aretha to understand that she could transform a song actually written by a man. “That girl done took my song from me,” Otis Redding, who wrote and originally recorded the tune, famously told Wexler, after hearing the studio tape. “Respect” has, without doubt, civil rights and human rights connotations, but it was originally intended as a song about marriage. Redding sang as the breadwinner demanding respect, in the form perhaps of sexual gratification, for his “propers when I get home.” Aretha turned the song on its head, telling her partner and the world that she could be a breadwinner, too. “Your kisses sweeter than honey/but, guess what, so is my money”—and getting those kisses requires r-e-s-p-e-c-t first.
The signature stop-time a cappella interlude (“find out what it means to me”) was the innovative arrangement Aretha brought to the session, along with the gospel-infused backup trio that included Whitney Houston’s mother, Cissy—a style borrowed from great female gospel groups like Albertina Walker and the Caravans. (I’d love to hear the lone Caravans survivor, Shirley Caesar, sing “Precious Lord” at Franklin’s funeral, just as Aretha sang this Thomas A. Dorsey gospel classic at the funeral of Martin Luther King.)
In the years that followed the breakthrough of “Respect,” Franklin’s music would, like that of Wexler’s other great recording project, Ray Charles, embody the full spectrum of American and American-influenced music. She recorded tour-de-force versions of country songs (Willie Nelson’s “Night Life,” Jimmie Davis’s “You Are My Sunshine”), pop songs (Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life”), and even rock classics like “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones. But truly appreciating Aretha takes one to the deep emotional level of her blues, as in “Good to Me as I Am to You” (on which she’s backed by Eric Clapton), “Dr. Feelgood,” and “Drown in My Own Tears.” Bringing the powerful combination of black gospel and blues to American popular music, she changed popular music around the world. A great American voice has been stilled.
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