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Music

Remembering Aretha Franklin

By Anwen Crawford
The Queen is dead; long live the Queen

Does anyone remember the first time they heard Aretha Franklin singing “Respect”? It is a song that arrives like a memory already formed. Franklin, too, is like that, and her death last week at the age of 76 will not alter or diminish the magnitude of her presence. The Queen is dead; long live the Queen.

“What you want / baby I got.” It’s not an entreaty or a question. Franklin’s “what”, writes New York Times critic Wesley Morris, “is a punch in the face”. Her first word in “Respect” might as well be her last: you will listen and you will heed her. Gladys Knight & the Pips’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”; Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”; Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”; Patti Smith; Grace Jones; Joan Jett; Poly Styrene; Janet Jackson’s “Control”; TLC’s “No Scrubs”; Beyoncé’s “Flawless” – none of these are really possible without Franklin having sung “Respect”. Mary J. Blige, who duetted with Franklin, was right when she said that Franklin “is the reason why women want to sing”.

“Respect”, recorded in 1967, opens Franklin’s first album for Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. It’s the album that made her a star, and the wonder of it is that just about every song is as good – and possibly better – than “Respect”. The title track, for instance, which was recorded in famously fractious circumstances at FAME Studios, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is a song on which indignation meets dignity. “I ain’t never!” Franklin shouts, at the first chorus. “I ain’t never,” she repeats, more clipped. “I ain’t never, no, no” – she stretches the notes out, and any other singer might, at this point, have carried on louder and longer, but Franklin suddenly lessens the pressure – “loved a man / the way that I, / I love you”. She sounds like someone who has taken the measure of her devotion but also of her own self-worth. It’s the latter that she’s holding close.

Franklin had already released 10 studio albums by the time she made I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. Her first, Songs of Faith (1956), was recorded live at her father the Reverend C.L. Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church, in Detroit. Her next nine records were made after she signed to Columbia, where producers tried to mould her into a light jazz singer, mostly to little effect, though cuts like “Skylark” or “Try a Little Tenderness” gave hints of the genius to come. When Columbia declined to renew her contract in 1966, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic was waiting.

“Aretha played on all the tracks in this outstanding collection,” Wexler wrote in the liner notes to I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, “and each song and arranging conception began with Aretha singing to her own piano accompaniment.” Franklin was rarely given credit for her gifts in song arrangement; the unforgettable backing vocals on “Respect”, for instance, were her idea. And she used the piano like a second voice, one that would emphasise the rightness of what she sang. Listen to her roll out the phrases on “Dr Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)”, a song she co-wrote with her then-husband, Ted White, or to the chords she plays down in the bass octaves during the second half of “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man”. “She’s not just a plaything” – jab, jab, triple underline – “She’s flesh and blood, just like her man”.

Franklin was only 24 when she recorded the first tracks for I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. By 1967 she’d given birth to three children, her first when she was just 12 years old. She’d been married for six years to Ted White, who abused her. (She would leave him in 1968.) Her mother Barbara died when she was 10; her father Clarence was as famous for his womanising as for his preaching. Franklin sang like someone with an old soul. She had that gift of wisdom in her voice that is given to few singers, but she had also lived through things that put wisdom upon her.

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You ends with Franklin’s version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Cooke was a friend and mentor to Franklin; it was his move from gospel music into secular pop that inspired Franklin to try the same thing herself. But Cooke was dead by the time Franklin recorded his song – another early grief. And so she begins her rendition with a salute to him. “There’s an old friend that / I once heard say / Something that touched my heart / And it began this way”.

Cooke’s own 1964 recording of “A Change Is Gonna Come” is so indelible that, for a long time, I couldn’t really hear Franklin’s version. I’d overlay it in my mind with Cooke’s vocal phrasing and with René Hall’s musical arrangement for Cooke – the piercing brass, the magisterial violins. But what Franklin does is to inhabit the very freedom that the song yearns for by making her version so loose and improvisatory. The vocal melody that she pursues is scarcely recognisable from Cooke’s version of the song; it doesn’t matter. That’s part of the point. Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a haunted, wearied, prophetic song; Franklin’s is enlivened, close at hand. All of her greatest recordings have this quality of presence, as if she is performing the song anew every time you hear it. That quality will never die.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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