Last week Aretha Franklin, ‘the Queen of Soul,’ passed away at the age of 76. Over the weekend I took time to read many remembrances of her songwriting, vocal prowess, and talent as a pianist. I dove deep into her discography and live performances. The moments that were the most vivid to me were most certainly ones that I can remember, moments from recent history.
Franklin was always in the background playing at my parent’s house. Her greatest hits are great for long drives. It was during those long drives when I came to understand her influence. Through the Civil and Women’s rights movements and the sexual revolution, she was always there with her voice and her words. Songs like ‘Respect’ and ‘Freedom’ continue to articulate the moment we are in now while remaining true to the moments of their creation.
Franklin’s stage presence was unmatched. With her passing, re-watching her performances brought depth and cadence to how I remembered her over the years. One example is her performance of ‘My Country, Tis of Thee’ at the presidential inauguration of Barak Obama in 2009. The crowd was visibly moved by her ability to fill the space outside of the mall that day. She was the perfect choice to perform the historical gravity of the moment.
As I reached the late ‘90s, I began to experience Franklin’s music as universal. She transcended genre, transitioning throughout her career from gospel to soul to R&B and back just as skillfully as she could hit a powerful note. Franklin is a pop artist from this century and the last, she encapsulated our moments through her songwriting and the work of other songwriters like Carole King. Franklin sang ‘(You Make Me Feel) Natural Woman’ at a 2015 event at the Kennedy Center. King’s reaction to the song went viral. It showed that Franklin’s performance of the song King wrote was truly the highest honor. Not to mention Franklin’s performance nearly brought President Obama to tears.
In a moment of many divas, Franklin stands as an original. Her presence in voice, lyric, and spectacle is the truest through line connecting us to our past and present.
Note: Listen here to a three-hour tribute to Franklin’s discography and live performances on KXCI Community Radio (it’s a sample of a live stream so wait until after the interview).
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