By Greg Dunmore
Aretha Franklin’s voice does something to you. It’s like the soothing voice of the mother. As a baby, you may not understand what the mother is saying, but it’s the tone that touches the soul and the heart.
Her voice is a blessing from God above. Her lyrics are profound and deep. Her rich body of work will sustain us for generations.
In an age of gimmicks, Aretha relied purely on her voice, with the power to blow away anyone brave enough to share her stage – down to the last sequin and bugle bead.
Working with everyone from Elton John to Lauryn Hill, she tackled all genres. When famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti was unable to sing Pussini’s “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammy Awards, Aretha made TV history as his “pitch-singer.” She performed for President Clinton so many times that she could have been considered an artist-in-residence at the White House. And she ushered Barack Obama into the Oval Office on a high note with a rendition like no other of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”
“Nobody can cast a spell with their voice like Aretha,” said one of her favorite singers, jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon. “She’s the only vocalist who can bridge the voice sexual and the voice sanctified, making you feel blessed to have these awe-inspiring sensations in your life.”
Sony and Arista executive Clive Davis, Aretha’s longest-running collaborator, said that every song she sang made history. “It’s clear that she will be listened to by millions another millennium from now.”
Millions paid tribute to the Queen of Soul in myriad ways after her transition on Aug. 16, 2018, at the age of 76 after battling pancreatic cancer. Fans lined several blocks near the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit for her two-day public viewing, which included a wardrobe change. Her marathon homegoing was an all-day celebration of music and memories with a who’s who lineup inside her church home, New Bethel Baptist, and Aretha admirers watching on all sorts of screens all over the world. There’s also talk of renaming Northern High School, Aretha’s alma mater, in her honor.
A natural woman who was naturally down to earth, Aretha said that “one important key to success is to always be yourself.”
“People complicate their lives by attempting to be someone else,” she explained. “Not being true to thyself is a fast setup for all sorts of failure.”
Among the world’s most-honored recording artists, Aretha won 18 Grammy Awards and was named a Grammy Legend in 1991. She was the first woman inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, became a Kennedy Center honoree in 1994 and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
Aretha has influenced singers from Luther Vandross to Stephanie Mills, who sang on a gospel CD on her label, World Class Records, to Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige, a partner on “Holdin’ On” and “Never Gonna Break My Faith,” from Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets With the Queen, which won a Grammy for Best Gospel Performance.
“Working with Aretha was like a dream come true,” Blige said. “I came to love her even more, because she was a beautiful and wonderful person to me in the studio.”
Singing was just one part of Aretha’s repertoire, which includes being a songwriter, musician, entrepreneur, author and Civil Rights activist. She put music and money behind the fight for social justice and “R-e-s-p-e-c-t.” After being locked up for disturbing the peace, she offered to post $250,000 in bail for Angela Davis.
“She’s a black woman, and she wants freedom for black people,” Aretha said in a Dec, 3, 1970, article in Jet. “I have the money; I got it from black people—they’ve made me financially able to have it—and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Born Aretha Louise Franklin in Memphis on March 25, 1942, and named for her father’s two sisters, she credited him for her success. “He always knew I was destined for big things.” The Rev. C.L. Franklin, an influential minister, attracted the rich and famous to his church and home.
“I was blessed to grow up around such greats as Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke.” In the early ’60s, father and daughter went to New York where she recorded the first of her roughly 50 albums.
Her dad could also be credited for Aretha’s hosting skills, for her parties were as varied as her music. She’s thrown lavish affairs on her yacht, transformed a mall into a French palace and given fish frys with a global flair at her Bloomfield Hills estate, where she’d serve chitlins on a gold platter and relegate caviar to a silver one.
Home was clearly where her heart was, especially when it came to her four sons and grandchildren. “My brothers and I were raised to always be thankful and grateful for what we were blessed to have,” her third son and bassist, Teddy Richards, said. Aretha recorded the title song on her first holiday album, “This Christmas Aretha,” with her son, Eddie.
“God has blessed me in many wonderful says,”Aretha said. “God has blessed all of us and for that we must be thankful.”
Greg Dunmore grew up in Detroit listening to Aretha Franklin on a transistor radio as a child. He later became friends with the Queen of Soul after she called him to invite his mother, jazz singer Jo Thompson, to perform. This tribute is a remix of his writings and remembrances.