The indomitable singer remains an inspiration as her songs remain anthemic
Within days of Aretha Louise Franklin’s birth, on March 25, 1942, a new Bob Hope movie was released called My Favourite Blonde. Hope plays his usual wiseguy, nudnik and stooge, caught up in a maelstrom he cannot comprehend. His sidekick in life and in film, Bing Crosby, has a walk-on part. Unbilled, he literally walks on and off. Mr Cool, he almost steals the movie, as if Hope was not even there.
The ‘blonde’ of the title is Madeleine Carroll from West Bromwich. Carroll was an interesting and complex actor who Hitchcock, almost a decade earlier, had turned into the archetypal ‘Hitchcock blonde’ in The 39 Steps. The ‘Hitchcock blonde’ is slender, usually dressed in tasteful, but subtly provocative clothing. She manages to find herself, during the course of the film, in some kind of bondage. She is a sex doll. A dream.
Aretha Franklin, born a black woman in a racist country and milieu, could not expect to ever be the subject of dreaming, of projection, no matter how perverse any of that was. Her destiny, if she was lucky, was to be invisible and to live a long, respectful life surrounded by family and friends and church. And then die as quietly as possible.
There have been many things said about the Queen of Soul since her death in the summer. Each of us has our own memories and favourite songs. But what is too often overlooked is how Franklin gave voice to the inner life, longing and battle of her people, of women, of almost everybody who took the time to listen. To deeply listen. Because in her greatest songs, there are secret treasures.
Aretha was the voice. This title is not unique but a rarity, and in pop/R&B at the time of her imperial period – the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s – there were only a handful of them: Sinatra, Presley, Paul McCartney. You can add others to fill that list, but with these ones you always knew because what they did was not tell you about themselves. They told you about you.
And perhaps Franklin did something that no other voice ever did, and still has not accomplished: she made her cover versions of the songs of others sound like she had originally made them.
After Otis Redding, who had first released Respect, heard her cover he opened a set, one of the last ones before he died, saying playfully that a girl had stolen his song. Respect, as originally sung by this great vocal genius, sounds like a cover of Franklin’s.
Her version is so transgressive that digging down reveals it in all its woman-power. For example, we mainly chant the refrain ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’. It’s lively and catchy and a bold hook. That refrain is all the song means to most of us.
But Redding, who was a dear friend of Franklin’s understood exactly what she had done. First of all, Respect is a political song, any way you want to look at it. Redding’s original is the plea of a black man for respect from his wife and society in general. The deeper feeling was that, in 1965 when the song was released, Redding was talking to the nation.
The almost all-male podium speakers of the March On Washington, two years before, had helped to reinforce the idea that the struggle was about manhood and the need to be heard. Women, while important and cherished and marching and dying, too, were sidelined when it came to the message.
What Franklin did when she covered it in 1967 was make it her own. Her Respect is about the lack of recognition of black women, of all women. Of who we are and what we need. The lyrics become not a demand, but a command. And Franklin went much further.
She also flouts her financial prowess, waving her own hard-earned cash in the face of every man listening and the powers-that-be. She puts her sisters Carolyn and Erma in the background as her backing singers, to deepen the threat. They chant ‘Ree-Ree’, which is Franklin’s nickname, used by her family and close friends. The name that would be the ‘throwdown’ in a street fight.
Ree-Ree is urged to push the song higher, declare her complete independence not only from males, but from the notion that a woman is a second-class thing. And that black women and women of colour are even more so.
Franklin’s Respect is not just a feminist anthem, or a great dance tune. It is a bold take and so buccaneering a gesture that every woman I knew at the time, all of us born and raised in what used to be called ‘the ghetto’, would hit the dance floor with our fists raised. The ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ part is the call to action. ‘Ree-Ree, Ree-Ree’ is the response. Otis Redding, a man of the people, had all of this information naturally. And he knew that his song was gone.
Elton John’s Border Song arrived with the kind of gospel fervour that seemed a miracle coming from him. It was a song sung by a superb singer and pianist, a man musing to the world about something he knew and understood. But in a strange way, the something that he knows is what he can also walk away from. Liberate himself.
Franklin turns the song into a prayer. She makes it sound ancient, something sung by enslaved people on death-boats from Africa; or the Irish, trapped in their own coffin ships bound for America.
Any people moving either willingly or unwillingly from their land. Their lives. This song, too, Franklin renders her own, and as wonderful as the original is, Elton John, too, sounds as if he is covering her.
In 1998, Franklin stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti at the last minute at Radio City Music Hall. The audience expected her to sing one of her signature hits. Instead she chose to sing her dear friend’s trademark aria: Nessun Dorma.
She does not even attempt to make it sound like a piece of opera. It is both gospel and soul. And she hits that last high note the way a preacher brings down the house at Easter. It is said that Celine Dion, in the audience that night, sat gob-smacked.
Franklin sang from that place that is ‘woman’: indomitable and moving forward. She did not make what she sang her own. Whatever she sang was waiting for her.
There are many people who are living examples of how Franklin sang, among them the women and their male allies who have been protesting against Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and Nadia Murad, the Yazidi woman and co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her activism on behalf of victims of rape in war.
Franklin’s world-weariness, so different from her contemporaries like McCartney, Dylan and Otis Redding himself, exemplifies what she could see, what most women can see. In her imperial period Franklin carved a legacy that is still unfolding. To paraphrase what legend says was uttered about Abraham Lincoln at his death: ‘Now she belongs to the ages.’