Remembering The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin in 2014
Aretha Franklin in 2014 Photo by Marc Brubaker

For any artist fortunate to have had a career as long as or touching as many genres as Aretha Franklin’s did, music nerds will forever debate their career as to when their “best” work was. Early on the scene? Mid-life maturation? Surprise latter days revival?

But make no mistake. In terms of the Queen of Soul that the poor unfortunate waif of Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” didn’t remember (though today, she’d be “Hey Fifty-Seven”), there’s pretty much a consensus on Aretha Franklin. Her greatest work was done with Atlantic Records from 1967-1979.

In the words of one of her songs from the era – Think! When you think of Aretha songs, which come to mind? “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man,” “Call Me,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby I Love You,” “Day Dreaming,” and “I Say A Little Prayer?” All recorded for Atlantic.

And, of course, there’s her signature song, “Respect.” Which after ‘Retha did it – adding some of her own lyrical flourishes and with the help of “Sock It to Me!” background singers that included her sisters Erma and Carolyn and Cissy Houston – it literally made people forget the original version by the original writer and performer: Otis Redding.

“That a girl took away from me, a friend of mine, this girl she just took this song!” he has been widely quoted as saying. Though he was never truly angry, even admitting that she did something with it that he couldn’t. Aretha turned it from a pleading man’s downtrodden lament to nothing sort of the greatest feminist anthem of the 20th century: strong, unapologetic, and powerful (sorry, Helen Reddy and “I Am Woman”).

Of course, she had help in shaping those tunes and LPs on Atlantic. Songwriters like Don Covay, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, and more. Hands-on producers like Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, and of course Jerry Wexler, for whom a session with Aretha was no button-pushing rote job. And Rick Hall, whose work on the 1967 Atlantic debut album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You at his FAME Studios with all those incredible cats in the Muscle Shoals Swampers. Even if a drunken fist fight argument with Hall and Franklin’s then-husband Ted White led to the couple’s early departure from Alabama (just one of the stories told in the incredible documentary Muscle Shoals).

After leaving Atlantic, Franklin would continue to have hits—though I don’t think anyone will point to “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” as the epitome of her work. And the honors and awards would shower upon her for the rest of her life. But she never would touch the heights of her work with Atlantic. Then again, she couldn’t. What could possibly be a higher place than the pinnacle of anything?

As with the death of any musical artist, there will be a huge spike in interest in and sales of their music. For the meat of Franklin’s Atlantic-era material, I would suggest buying (or, I guess, streaming) The Very Best of Aretha Franklin—The ‘60s. Or, for a deeper look, 30 Greatest Hits, both from Rhino Records. And that – with apologies to Donald Fagen – is the best way to remember the Queen of Soul. – Bob Ruggiero


Music fans everywhere took to social media yesterday to express love, condolences and, yes, respect for Aretha Franklin on the news of her passing at 76. Fellow music legends offered poignant tributes. Paul McCartney recalled her greatness and dubbed her “The Queen of our souls.” Diana Ross gave thanks for her “golden spirit.” Billy Joel called her “the greatest singer of our time.” Not one of the greatest, but the greatest.

Musicians here at home also acknowledged the moment. Houston’s reigning lady of soul, The Suffers’ Kam Franklin, tweeted, “When you grow up with the last name ‘Franklin,’ it’s hard to call yourself a ‘singer.’ No matter how hard I tried, I knew I’d never compare to her. Aretha was everything.” Local rapper and activist Genesis Blu extended a nod to Franklin’s lasting impact on art and American society by noting the amazing life Aretha lived “across generations.” Blues belter Trudy Lynn recalled sharing the stage with Franklin with KTRK for a news spot. She covers Franklin’s bluesy tune “Pitiful” on her new album, Blues Keep Knockin’.

You’re bound to hear more from musical, political and social dignitaries in days to come about Franklin’s contributions to American culture as an artist, feminist and activist. But, you may not hear the oh-so-smart pundits tackling their single favorite Aretha Franklin song. In some ways, it’s a much more difficult task than writing 500 words on her importance to the Civil Rights movement or female empowerment.

Aretha was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – the first selected from every possible candidate extending back to the far depths of time, the first from all who came before her for that inaugural class. She charted more than 100 singles on Billboard in her career. Those are the most popular of her songs, obviously. The deep cuts are incredible. It’s a daunting task to choose one lone favorite, but I’m going to ask anyway – which is yours?

I’ll start. My mother was a fiercely independent woman whose music leaned toward powerful female voices. I heard a lot of Whitney Houston, Anita Baker, Gladys Knight and Cher growing up. This line of artists began with Aretha, naturally. "Rock Steady," "Try Matty's," “Never Let Me Go,” "Dr. Feelgood," (Mom’s favorite and one which I have warbled through on select karaoke nights — sorry if you’ve ever personally witnessed that), all of the many megahits - just too much to choose from to say definitively "this is the one."

But I've always loved “Spirit in the Dark,” and even more so now as an adult because it's a gospel tune about the party people. Aretha wrote this one and it’s the prime example of Franklin melding her ecclesiastical roots with the secular, not just in sound but thematically, too. From the stellar 1970 album of the same name, on this track Aretha turns the act of going out for a good time into something spiritual, which is what is should be, after all. In her hands (which play piano with nuance and astonishing fervor over the song’s too-brief four minutes), frequenting the places where music is played and people are dancing, connecting and having fun, it's a religious experience unlike others. 
The song mirrors both the best of sermons and the best nights out. It begins softly, like the relaxed feel of just a couple of us meeting to chart the evening. You anticipate its build-up. Like a fine night out or an effective sermon, it gathers a choir of voices and raised spirits as it moves forward. And, like a truly memorable evening or an especially moving oration, it ultimately explodes into a joyous, revival-styled roar. It's almost as if the song begins on a Saturday evening in the streets, clubs and bars and ends with everyone marching straight from last call to the foot-stomping and hand-clapping of Sunday morning service. Talk about being taken to church. There'll never be another like The Queen of Soul. — Jesse Sendejas Jr.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero