I can’t say for certain when the first time I ever heard an Aretha Franklin album was. Her music was simply always there, in the the same way that Ella’s music was always there. I was weaned on her music, and to it.
My father, a professional jazz musician until the time he met my mother, held most popular music post-1955 in disdain, especially anything that might qualify for the hodge-podge of emerging genres he broadly labeled “that God damn rock music you and your sister listen to.” The Beatles, Motown, disco, soul — all of it was trash in my dad’s eyes. But he carved out an exception for Aretha, because curmudgeon or not, he could hear the gospel roots embedded in her voice, and he could trace a lineage all the way back to a young Billie Holiday in her phrasing. “That woman can swing,” he’d say without irony, in an age well past when anyone who was not being ironic ever claimed musicians could swing. And he was right, of course.
If you don’t believe me, go listen to her earlier albums: Songs of Faith, or her work with Ray Bryant, or the most correctly-titled musical album of all time, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, all recorded long before her star truly rose. Seriously, go and listen. Now. Then you’ll see, as if you don’t see already, that my dad was right.
Aretha Franklin could mother-fishing swing.
In my mind, Aretha will always be linked with Ella Fitzgerald. For one thing, along with Duke Ellington, they were the only famous musicians in our house that were ever referred to by first name rather than last. More than that, though, there is a kind of spiritual connection between them. Though more easily linked to Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong musically speaking, culturally speaking Aretha was the second coming of Ella.
Both were from the South, of course, and as we all acknowledge, being black in that era, that meant something important. What we acknowledge somewhat less, however, is what it meant to be a black woman in that same time and place. Ugliness tends to flow downward in the gutters of power: Ella and Aretha both felt that in their personal lives, even long after they were superstars. Each came from financially poor but musically rich households, and each grew up dealing with broken homes and fathers that stepped out on their mothers as a matter of habit. At the height of Aretha’s and Ella’s fame, each of their mothers were widely rumored to have abandoned their children — not because their mothers actually did so, but because that’s how we preferred to think of poor, black women who were parents. Franklin herself had her first child at the age of twelve, in circumstances that surely would have been thought criminal by society-at-large had they occurred in a different neighborhood, one where society-at-large was less likely to think of twelve-year old girls as disposable.
Like Ella, Aretha lived a life engulfed by music but, being a woman, had to embrace learning it under her own steam. She taught herself piano and did so entirely by ear at the age of ten, shortly after her mother’s passing. She joined the church choir and quickly became a soloist; before she was fifteen her father began to get her paying gigs singing at churches in neighboring towns.
Like my dad, Aretha’s father had a highly specific notion of what real music was and was not. Clarence Franklin was a lover of gospel, and it was his intention that his daughter limit herself to that particular style. Aretha, however, had already come under the sway of definitely-not-gospel musicians such as Louis Jordan, Charles Brown, and Brooke Benton. But it was the career gospel-trained, genre jumping Sam Cook that Franklin ultimately decided to emulate, a decision which her disappointed father hated but fully supported.
In 2018, it is somewhat fashionable, when talking about Aretha, to argue about when her success finally arrived. Was it her signing with Atlanta Records in 1967? Was it her hit Do Right Woman, Do Right Man? Was it the transcendent cover of Otis Redding’s Respect, the song for which she is most widely associated — and which is improbably a hundred times greater than the original despite the original itself being so perfect? The answer to this question is important in understanding Aretha and her historical ties to Ella, because the truth is Aretha was hugely successful right out of the gate with her very first recordings, made over a decade before her signing with Atlantic.
From the age of fourteen, Aretha was critically and commercially successful with everything she did. Her records got play on the radio, her shows regally sold out, and by 1960, she was considered by many to be the greatest female gospel and R&B singer alive. Like Ella, Aretha simply never searched for success. She brought it with her when she arrived.
But of course, that’s not what we really talk about when we talk about Aretha or Ella finding success. What we really mean when we talk about Aretha or Ella finding success is success with white people. And it is here that Aretha did Ella one better, and in doing so became the river source for all of the Beyonces, Alicia Keyes, and Lauren Hills who followed her.
Ella Fitzgerald eventually found huge commercial success with white audiences. But in order to do so, Ella was forced to change who Ella was, by putting her talents in the hands of Nelson Riddle. Ella Fitzgerald recordings pre-Riddle, especially the live ones, were not considered appropriate for a black woman of that era by white society. You can just hear so much in her voice – anger, defiance, pride, and self-confidence, all interwoven with an intense, open sexuality. In order to make her consumable to whites, Riddle scrubbed all that out of her and left in its place the country’s first female version of Frank Sinatra — still a thing of beauty and awe, but somehow tamed and tepid. Nelson Riddle made Ella safe, and in doing so allowed liking her music to be acceptable in polite white society.
Aretha, sadly, would eventually go the safe-for-commercial-sake route. But that would come later, in the mid-1980s, when her career and voice were in decline. (And even then, she would produce some damn fine music, like Freeway of Love and a fanatic cover of Everyday People.) But decades before that, Aretha was able to accomplish what Ella and, really, every other black female musical artist before her never could.
Aretha Franklin gained wide, white, mainstream success without removing any of her anger, defiance, pride, self-confidence, or sexuality. She took her astounding, soaring, raw, gritty voice, and with it she grabbed white audiences by the throat and wouldn’t let go. White audiences, much to their surprise, found themselves completely and utterly in her thrall.
Because, again, my dad was right. Aretha Franklin could mother-fishing swing.
Now, with her passing, it will likely become fashionable to spend the next week revisiting her mainstream hits of the late 1960s and 1970s. I, however, intend to spend the next few days going back to listen to her earlier work, back when she wore her gospel soul like a lion’s mane, rather than a thing you could see if you looked right at her mane’s roots. And yes, I’ll continue on through her discography through the Atlantic years, as R&B and Soul bled into her works, and she become the best-ever at those genres, too. I very much encourage you to do the same. I’ll likely taper off at 1982’s Jump To It, the album where, for me, Aretha stops being entirely Aretha. (If you choose to go on from there, more power to you. Like I say, even in her lesser years, she was a gift.) And it’s likely I’ll cry when I listen to those albums, crying being a thing I rarely do as a grown man, and a thing which, if I’m being 100% honest with you, dear reader, I’m finding myself doing right now as I write these very words.
Rest in peace, Aretha Franklin. We will always be grateful for your presence on this Earth, even as we are not worthy.