Aretha Louise Franklin, the undisputed Queen of Soul

On August 16th we lost one of the greatest vocalists to ever grace this planet, Aretha Louise Franklin, the undisputed Queen of Soul.  A dedicated civil rights activist and humanitarian icon to many, Barack Obama said she “helped define the American experience.”  I would add this woman could define and heighten any musical experience regardless of genre full stop.

Unlike virtually everyone else my age, Aretha’s greatness didn’t permeate much into what I was listening to growing up other than the massive hits like ‘Respect’ and ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ that even I, in my curious solitary big band and early jazz bubble, couldn’t help but hear, but the little I heard I thought amazing.  Over the years I have readdressed this listening balance and now put Aretha’s vocal skills, definitely on a par with those of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, though of course all three are incomparable and utterly unique.

I’m always fascinated to read about the lives of singers I admire, to learn what their early influences were, to listen to the records that inspired them to see how these sounds informed their own individual styles.

By the time she was 12 years old Aretha was playing piano and singing solos in church and often on the road with her father C.L. Franklin, respected Baptist minister and super star preacher known as the man with the “Million – Dollar Voice”.  His success touring and selling records of his sermons made C.L. a wealthy man and he and his children presided in a huge grand house in Detroit.  There were lots of parties and musicians would visit the Franklins, jazz royalty like Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Dinah Washington.  Blues artists like B.B. King were friends to the family.  The house was full of music and unlike other religious ministers C.L. saw blues and jazz music equal to gospel saying all good music came from God.

By all accounts Aretha was like a musical sponge in that she could immediately replicate what she heard, never having to study but taking everything in with her ears and eyes.  When an 18 year old Aretha signed to Columbia in 1960 resulting in the album Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo the voice you hear is already fully formed, her phrasing effortless, her grasp of lyrics worldy wise.  There will never be another Aretha Franklin. RIP x.