Aretha died the other day, which could be just another case of a 1960s rock musician coming to the end of their Biblical three score and 12, give or take a few years.
Since I started this blog a couple years ago, I’ve written about many such deaths. Many of those who have passed during that period were, arguably, victims of their own excesses: drugs and/or alcohol, sexual license, etc. Aretha, contrarily, fell to that variety of cancer that is so unforgiving, and so unrelated to lifestyle: pancreatic.
But that is largely irrelevant to Franklin’s impact on The Music. Much of that influence was tossed around in the eulogies and tributes that I heard on cable news today: dozens of No. 1 hits, even more charting singles, etc.
Some of the encomiums were a bit stretched. Despite the claims about her No. 1 singles — and not denigrating the rhythm and blues rankings — “Respect” was the only hit that topped the Billboard Hot 100. She did indeed have 20 No. 1s on the magazine’s R&B chart.
(Not even Elvis Presley had 20 top-of-the-chart singles. The King of Rock and Roll, who died the same day of the month as Aretha, 41 years earlier, “only” had 18 Billboard No. 1s.)
To me, just as important as the success of her 45-rpm records was how well she did with songs she recorded that had been recorded by other people. Most of her hits were written by others, including songwriting giants like Jerry Goffin and Carole King and Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
Out of the dozens, or maybe hundreds, of songs she recorded, she wrote less than 10 of them, the most notable of those being “Think” and “Rock Steady.” Not bad stuff — the first of those is a classic — but not her most successful.
Aretha, though, had a way of covering songs previously done by others and owning them. “Respect” was a No. 35 for the man who wrote it, Otis Redding, but most people probably associate the song with Franklin, and remember her version.
(That might have not have been the case had Redding not died in a plane crash in late 1967. He was just 26, just hitting the crest of success; his career would likely have compared to Franklin’s.)
Part of the reason that Aretha’s version of the Redding song is so memorable is that she flipped it — sang it from the woman’s perspective. The R-E-S-P-E-C-T callout was another distinctive touch, as was the repetitive “Sock it to me” backing vocal.
(The Queen of Soul tended to do songs from the woman’s perspective, making it harder for us guys to sing along with her stuff. The same can be said of Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt and a few other ladies.)
But it wasn’t just “Respect.” “I Say a Little Prayer” was a Bacharach/David number and a No. 4 for Dionne Warwick in December 1967. Franklin’s version, with backing vocals by the Sweet Inspirations, “only” got to No. 10 — but her soaring vocal makes it much more memorable than Warwick’s.
Or how about “Spanish Harlem”? That Lieber-Stoller song was a No. 10 for Ben E. King in 1961, and marked the start of a very successful solo career following his departure from the Drifters.
Franklin, again, tweaked the lyrics just a bit, but it was another stratospheric vocal that helped make it a Billboard R&B No. 1 and a No. 2 on the Hot 100. (The piano by Malcolm Rebennack, aka Dr. John, probably didn’t hurt, either.)
Aretha covered a lot of other artists, recording songs by the Band, the Beatles, Elton John, Glen Campbell, Simon and Garfunkel, Smokey and the Miracles, Dustry Springfield, the Stones and others. Not every somebody else’s thing she touched turned to gold, but for her, even so-so was pretty good: No. 6 with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” No. 13 with “Son of a Preacher Man,” No. 17 with “Eleanor Rigby.”
Those were part of a remarkable record of recording success: 77 singles that charted on the Hot 100, including 17 Top 10s and 41 Top 40s. Four of her studio albums were Top 10s, two of them reaching No. 2 on that Billboard chart. (Her recording career extended into this decade, with a 2014 single reaching No. 47 on the R&B chart.)
Those and the live albums and collaborations with other artists amount to more than 75 records sold worldwide. Add to that 18 Grammy Awards, a National Medal of the Arts and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as the first female artists so honored.
She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Pres. George W. Bush, and was invited to sing at the inauguration of Pres. Barrack Obama. Aretha’s impact on popular culture went beyond her hits: the cameo in the the Blue Brothers movie, the mention in Steely Dan’s 1980 hit (“Hey Nineteen, that’s ’Retha Franklin/She don’t remember the Queen of Soul.”)
Her life story was extraordinary, beginning with a childhood that could have set her up for failure. Born in Memplis, Tenn., the cradle of the blues and arguably the birthplace of rock and roll, she was the daughter of a popular Baptist preacher who cheated on her mother.
Franklin’s mother died when she was nine, and she spent much of her youth in Detroit, Mich. — the home of Motown, and another special place in rock history — where she died Aug. 16.
So, the Queen of Soul is dead. Long live her music!