When I heard the news this morning that Aretha Franklin had died at the age of 76, it occurred to me that she was the most universally loved singer I could think of. I know people who don't like the Beatles, or who don't like Bob Dylan, or Merle Haggard, or Ella Fitzgerald, or any legendary performer you can name. But I don't know anyone who didn't love the music of Aretha Franklin.
It was fifty years ago that Aretha exploded into the world of pop and R&B. She'd been recording for a few years at Columbia Records, who were trying to turn her into a jazz singer, recording songs like "Today I Sing the Blues" and "Skylark." But in 1967, she landed at Atlantic Records, and they knew exactly what to do with her. If all we knew of Aretha Franklin were the albums she released that year—I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, Aretha Arrives, and Lady Soul—that alone would be enough to make her a near-legend. "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man," "Respect," "Baby I Love You," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Chain of Fools"—and we're still talking about just one year.
One aspect of Aretha's career that is sometimes overlooked is her skill as an interpreter. You could put together a fine collection of Aretha hits that had already been hits for other artists, and as often as not, you might find that her version comes to mind even faster than the original— "The Weight," "Eleanor Rigby," "Border Song (Holy Moses)," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Spanish Harlem," "You're All I Need to Get By."
There wasn't much that Aretha Franklin couldn't do. Had she not ventured into secular music, she might have had an extraordinary career as a gospel singer; she never entirely gave up gospel, and her 1972 album Amazing Grace is a classic. And while those early attempts to market her as a jazz singer didn't quite work, it wasn't because she couldn't sing those songs, as we can hear in a compilation of her recordings from the Great American Songbook. In 1998, she even tackled opera, filling in for an indisposed Luciano Pavarotti to sing the Verdi aria "Nessun Dorma" at the Grammy Awards. It may not have been what Verdi had in mind, but it was riveting.
In 1956, a fourteen-year-old Aretha Franklin recorded her first album, a collection of gospel standards. Her final album was released last year, featuring new performances of some of her classic hits backed up by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. There's a large selection of her music available for streaming or download at Hoopla and Freegal.
Jerry Wexler, who produced many of her classic Atlantic albums, said of that first album that her voice "was not that of a child but rather of an ecstatic hierophant." "Hierophant" isn't a word most of us casually toss about on a daily basis; it's a religious officiant whose job is to prepare the congregation for the presence of the divine. I might quibble with Wexler's opinion a bit: When Aretha Franklin sang, we weren't being prepared for the divine; it was already there.