10 years ago I was in Melbourne and stumbled into this amazing little vintage clothes shop in a basement somewhere in the central city. Flicking through the stock, it was such a relief to finally find a place that sold music T-shirts beyond the usual suspects of Bob Marley, Led Zeppelin, Metallica and the Rolling Stones. All fine acts and all fine subjects for printed fabric I’m sure, but the world is not in need of more people in black Metallica or Led Zep shirts. A blue shirt with a white woodcut-style print of a circa-1968 Aretha Franklin though?
I didn’t even debate with myself if I’d buy it or not. I didn’t even try it on. For the next five years or so this was to be one of my go-to wardrobe options, aware that its presence on a young white man like me was conveying some sort of statement.
Indeed, anyone wearing a music T-shirt is making a statement. The statement may not ever be directly articulated, but a guy in a Metallica top is still telling the world what music he likes, what image he wants people to have of him and who his tribe is.
Like those guys in their Metallica gear, I wore my Aretha Franklin T-shirt for reasons beyond merely loving her music. You can love someone’s music but still think twice about wanting to wear their branding. But Aretha as an icon always sent a message and those were and still are messages I want to associate with. It’s a shame I no longer fit the T.
From singing at the funeral of Martin Luther King in 1968 to the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, Aretha’s life and career chartered the absolute pinnacle of the African American existence as well as mirroring the universal trials of the human existence.
As much as this was the woman for presidents and slain heroes, as much as this was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, as much as this was the owner of no less than 18 Grammy Awards, as much as this is the holder of a record-breaking 20 US R&B #1 hits, as much as this was the person for whom Rolling Stone magazine exalted as the single greatest singer of all time, Aretha Franklin’s 76 years on this earth were also dotted with profound struggles and sadness.
Growing up in Detroit, she was just nine when her mother died, was pregnant at 13 and a mother herself at 14. By 16 she had two children, the fathers seemingly written out of her life story. Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, was a superstar preacher and civil rights activist who was also a notorious philanderer (including fathering a child with a 12-year member of his congregation in 1940). He spent the final five years of his life in a coma after being shot in a home invasion in 1979.
Aretha’s first husband, Ted White, was violent and abusive and a second marriage did not last. She was close to her three siblings Cecil, Erma and Carolyn, but all three died relatively young. Then there were the well publicised battles with her weight and various other health issues. In the end, it was advanced pancreatic cancer that took her life.
Destined for fame from her childhood days singing in her father’s church, it took a full 11 years and 11 albums (from 1956 to 1967) before she found her groove and her true place in the musical landscape. When she found it in the late 60s with tracks like Respect and Natural Woman, she also found she was better at it than anybody else. From 1967 until her death on August 16, 2018, she was never not the undisputed Queen Of Soul.
Even pop royalty can fall from commercial favour though and after 1972 not everything Aretha touched turned to gold (or platinum), but only true pop royalty can keep coming back. Aretha’s repeated major comebacks, be it in 1974, 1976, 1980, 1982, 1985 or 1998, proved she was never really ever away.
She embodied want it meant to be a feminist in everything from the confidence that so visibly flowed through her to the fact she could write and arrange songs as well as any man. I’ve written before how her complete overhaul of Otis Redding’s Respect makes it an injustice she wasn’t given at least a co-producer’s credit and possibly even a co-songwriter’s credit. It was Aretha (with help from her sisters and fellow singers Erma and Carolyn) who came up with the R-E-S-P-E-C-T breakdown, as well as the “sock it to me” repetition.
“She done took my song!” said Otis, realising Respect would never be his again. More than that, Aretha’s version is so definitive it often gets omitted from lists of the greatest cover songs of all time. I guess it doesn’t matter when it’s on every list of the greatest songs of all time. Its ability to be everything from a civil rights anthem to a rallying cry for women, to an expression of female sexual empowerment (“what you want, baby I got it…”) makes it timeless. And nobody will ever sing it as good as Aretha.
The Aretha on my now too tight blue T-shirt has the Afro haircut that said so much that white audiences at the time may have missed. No longer were black artists going to hide their natural hair and thereby their heritage, they were going to own it. This was the era of socially-conscious soul, of James Brown’s Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud and Nina Simone’s To Be Young, Gifted And Black. Aretha would take the title of the latter for her 1972 album, a powerhouse that included two of her finest self-written tracks, Day Dreaming and Rock Steady.
Those songs are reminders that she could really write, but when you’re as good as elevating the works of others as she was, it’s little surprise it’s an overlooked of her skills.
I’ll leave you with a song which on first glance looks like an Aretha original in that there’s a Franklin in the writer’s credits. Angel was an R&B #1 in 1973 and a pop top 20 that recalls Diana Ross’ dramatic take on Ain’t No Mountain High Enough from 1970. Both songs have spoken passages and similar string arrangements. Both are stunning pieces of soulful pop.
In the case of Angel, it was written by Sonny Saunders and Aretha’s sister Carolyn. Not only did Carolyn co-write it especially for Aretha (as described in the song’s spoken intro), but she also provided backing vocals alongside their other sister, Erma. So it’s really ‘the Franklin Sisters’. The lyrics aren’t just of a broken heart, but almost a broken soul. They’re devastating and Aretha lives every line.
The song’s emotional climax and subsequent release happens in the juxtaposition of describing “no misery like the misery I feel in me” just seconds before Carolyn and Erma reassure her she’ll find love again: “You’ll meet him, now don’t you worry”. Even better, there’s the then unexpected humour and swagger of Carolyn and Erma’s, “keep lookin’ and just keep cookin'”. Their sister has just confessed her world-beating misery, but her family are there to tell her it’s going to be OK. Keep cookin’! And that she did.
Co-produced by Aretha with the genius that is Quincy Jones, Angel is an overlooked gem in a catalogue full of them. RIP to the Queen Of Soul, rest easy Aretha.