As a tribute to Aretha Franklin, journalist and author Meredith Ochs shares insights into Franklin’s life and her impact on the music industry. The exclusive excerpt is republished from Ochs’ “Rock-and-Roll Woman: The 50 Fiercest Female Rockers.”
By Meredith Ochs
When Aretha Franklin announced in 2017 that she would no longer perform in concert, she didn’t hold a press conference or book a high-profile television appearance. Franklin doesn’t do many of those; a notoriously thorny interview, she’s known for plying clipped, cagey responses that make even veteran journalists uneasy.
Instead, she mentioned it during a phoner with Evrod Cassimy, a local television anchor whose morning show she regularly watched from her home in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. Cassimy had interviewed Franklin in the past, and she was sufficiently impressed to invite him to her star-studded seventy-second birthday party in New York City. It made sense that she’d want to give the scoop to someone she was fond of.
Franklin also still thrills because when she’s on, there’s no one better.
Aretha Franklin’s Rock Steady Career
Retirement for the Queen of Soul, however, doesn’t mean shuffling off to Florida. Franklin would have to take her bus there anyway—her extreme fear of flying has kept her ground-bound since the ’80s. She said her plans included opening up a live music club in Detroit, where she would occasionally perform; and continuing to make records. She also scheduled gigs well into 2018, including a headlining spot at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and a show at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on her seventy-sixth birthday, though they’d later be canceled on orders from her doctor.
Aretha Franklin continues to fascinate. Her legendary voice is a colossus: deeply rooted in gospel, and versatile enough to purvey R&B, rock, soul, pop, jazz, standards, and more over her six-decade career. Her family was enmeshed in the civil rights movement; between their legacy and the power of her voice, even her relationship songs during the late ’60s and early ’70s were imbued with social consciousness. Franklin’s highly guarded demeanor about her family’s complicated history, her own complicated history, and, more recently, speculation about her health, only adds to the conjecture.
But Franklin also still thrills because when she’s on, there’s no one better. Her 2014 album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, was her highest-charting effort since her lite-R&B ’80s heyday, when Who’s Zoomin’ Who (1985) powered to number thirteen via the hit “Freeway of Love.” Diva Classics’ lead single, a cover of Adele’s “Rollin’ in the Deep,” made Franklin the first woman to land one hundred songs on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart. In 2015, she appeared in fine form and fine voice at the Kennedy Center Honors for Carole King. Franklin played piano and sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which King co-wrote especially for her. She stepped to center stage as she hit the song’s concluding high notes with complete vocal power and a dramatic “fur drop,” letting her full-length mink fall to the floor (a move she learned from her mentor, gospel singer Clara Ward). King freaked out for the full four minutes, the normally cool President Obama wiped a tear from his eye, and the Internet nearly broke. Franklin herself has referred to it as “one of the three or four greatest nights” of her life.
Franklin’s vocal wallop was a mix of preaching, rebuke, and elation that soared over her gospel-steeped piano, the boggy-bottomed rhythm of the Swampers, and Erma and Carolyn’s unconsecrated tabernacle whooping.
Lady Soul: Aretha Franklin’s Legacy
Franklin received her own Kennedy Center honor in 1994. There are few honors she hasn’t received, and her accolades include eighteen Grammys and being the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She has performed for presidents, Prince, and even the Pope. She inspires a reverence that goes beyond her prodigious talents and delves into her gospel origins. It’s in her DNA. Her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, was a charismatic and renowned minister whose fervent preaching often crossed into singing when he got especially emotive. He was drawn to brilliant, complex people, and Aretha grew up around his circle of friends, including civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., jazz piano legend Art Tatum, and crossover soul singer Sam Cooke.
When the Reverend toured the country, he brought Aretha along and had her sing before he took the pulpit. Though her parents separated, and her mother died, before she turned ten, she had two powerful female role models in gospel singers Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward; both were close with Reverend Franklin, and both encouraged her to perform.
After being scouted by John Hammond, who’d also found Billie Holiday, she had a deal with Columbia Records by the age of eighteen. She gained tremendous experience playing standards with an array of musicians; but after nine albums and not a lot of notoriety, she moved to Atlantic Records in 1967. Signed by Jerry Wexler (who wrangled Carole King and Gerry Goffin to write “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for her), the plan was to get Franklin closer to her roots. Backed by various Swampers—the venerable R&B session players from Muscle Shoals, Alabama—Franklin’s sisters Erma and Carolyn, and others, it marked a period of turbulent creativity that yielded her most enduring work.
The Blues Brothers and Beyond
Franklin’s vocal wallop was a mix of preaching, rebuke, and elation that soared over her gospel-steeped piano, the boggy-bottomed rhythm of the Swampers, and Erma and Carolyn’s unconsecrated tabernacle whooping. From the languorous “I Never Loved a Man (the Way That I Love You),” to the tremoloed, funky “Chain of Fools,” to the fiercely feminist “Think,” to the definitive, demanding version of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” Franklin’s songs played out against the tumultuous sociopolitical backdrop of the late ’60s like a soundtrack meant to set things right.
Years later, she’d return to Columbia via Arista Records and enjoy a rock ’n’ roll comeback, making cameos in The Blues Brothers movies, playing with the Rolling Stones, and collaborating with Eurythmics and George Michael. In 1998 she appeared in the first annual VH1 Divas Live, proving that no one could out-diva Franklin, as if that wasn’t already known. She remains one of the most spectacular conduits between gospel and rock, between the sacred and the profane.
Meredith Ochs is an award-winning radio personality, author, musician, photographer, and deejay. A long-time commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, her work has also appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Salon.com, and numerous other publications. Her previous books include Rock-and-Roll Woman: the 50 Fiercest Female Rockers (Sterling) and Bruce Springsteen: An Illustrated Biography (Quarto). She lives in Hoboken, NJ.
Rock-and-Roll Woman: the 50 Fiercest Female Rockers, Sterling
ISBN: 978-1-4549-3062-4 │ Hardcover │ 224 pages │ $27.95, Publication Date: October 23, 2018.