When I was in my early teens, I used to listen to Top 40 radio on WABC am radio from New York, a ubiquitous voice blaring from transistor radios everywhere I went. The Beatles. The Stones. Bob Dylan. Plus a million schlocky love ballads and a few novelty songs. Some Tony Bennett and Ray Charles. The occasional instrumental. You get it. A little bit of everything.
Aretha had a few hits in her early 20s on the R&B charts. Then came 1967, and there was a new voice on the pop airwaves. Nothing sounded like it before. Nothing since. Aretha Franklin had arrived.
She had grown up singing gospel music in her father's church, the New Bethel Baptist Church in the Motor City of Detroit. Martin Luther King had taken her on tour when she was just sixteen. And she was inspired by Dr. King to devote much of her life to the causes of the poor and disenfranchised, including Native-Americans, African-Americans, Women, and many other beleaguered groups.
The legendary Dinah Washington designated her the next bright star in the firmament. Following a couple of lesser hits, Aretha released the song that would be associated with her for the rest of her life--"RESPECT". Its pulsating rhythm and strident lyrics made it a perfect anthem for the Black Power movement AND the Women's Movement and probably a few other revolutions as well.
Below: The original 1967 hit that reached #1 on Billboard.
In the late 60s, you couldn't listen to the radio for very long without hearing Aretha's latest hit. She churned out such classics as: "A Natural Woman"; "Say a Little Prayer"; "Chain of Fools"; "The House That Jack Built"; "I Never Loved a Man"; "Do-Right Woman, Do-Right Man" and a dozen others. Aretha always said that there was a girl with her voice in every Baptist church choir, but she was just being modest. There was no other voice like hers. Here she is singing "I Never Loved a Man" for all the women who ever loved a bad boy:
In the early Seventies, Aretha returned to her gospel roots and over a two-day period in a Los Angeles church she recorded Amazing Grace, which sold two million copies and became the largest selling gospel album of all time. The concert was filmed but synchronization glitches and rights arguments prevented it from being released....until now! UPDATE: The film has just begun to appear in theatres as of April 2019! Here is the trailer. A must see. My fave is "Mary, Don't You Weep". It doesn't get any better.
Aretha's career hit a rough patch for a few years, but she rocketed back into prominence in the early Eighties. It was the period of the MTV revolution, and one would think times had bypassed Aretha's brand of music. Instead, she embraced the new culture. She poked a little fun of herself in movies like The Blues Brothers, in which she played a waitress in a greasy spoon diner who busts out from behind the counter to perform her classic "Think". Man, would I like a booth at that restaurant!
She also started to release her own videos, and a much younger market accepted her with open arms. She recorded successful duets with such diverse stars as George Benson and George Michael. Aretha worked the whole Diva image to perfection, and turned on a new generation. Here is the link for her big hit "Freeway of Love": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ip_pjb5_fgA
Aretha's years since then have been hit-or-miss musically, largely because she has suffered from a number of serious illnesses and complications from medical procedures. Still, she managed to pull it together quite famously when President Obama asked her to sing at his inaugural. Everyone remembers her hat!
Just a few years ago, Aretha was invited by the Obamas to perform at the Women of Soul Night at the White House. Along with some contemporary stars like Janelle Monae, Aretha performed a few hits, including a rousing rendition of "Amazing Grace". Here is a clip:
I can't think of a better song, though, for summing up my thrill at listening to Aretha all these years than the Broadway show tune "Somewhere" from West Side Story. What? No Motown anthem? No gospel hymn? Well, you can listen to how she turns this song into a gospel tune and an anthem by sheer dint of her musical powers. It is wistful and inspiring both, just as spirituals should be, and it's a fitting way to say goodbye to the one-of-a-kind artist we lost on August 16, 2018, the vocalist Rolling Stone declared as the #1 singer of All Time in its poll. Thank you, Aretha.