Aretha: Bringing soul to the stage

AL GOLDIS | AP file photoIn this June 15, 2004 file photo, singer Aretha Franklin sings the National Anthem before the start of game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Detroit Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers in Auburn Hills, Mich. Franklin died Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018 at her home in Detroit. She was 76.

It takes an exceptional musical artist to take a song written and already recorded by the great Otis Redding — and then record a new version that eclipses the original.

That’s exactly what Aretha Franklin did when she recorded “Respect.” Franklin’s version became so ubiquitous that few people remember Redding’s rendition anymore.

Aretha was that kind of artist. Dubbed the Queen of Soul by a deejay early in her professional career, Aretha infused her particular brand of soulfulness into nearly every recording and concert she did, regardless of the musical genre she might be performing in at a specific time. While her particular artistry honed in on her soul and gospel music roots, she also performed in the jazz and blues genres and even touched on country music with her rendition of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”

Her initial foray into a major label recording career on Columbia records got off to an uneven start. Columbia tried to fit her into a sort of jazz-pop mold, and while Aretha had no trouble mastering the genres, they did not seem to be where her heart was.

In 1967, she made the move to Atlantic Records and producer Jerry Wexler, who must have understood her ties to gospel music, based on the results, recorded many of Aretha’s best-known hits, including “Respect.”

“Respect” of course, became her signature song, with Aretha singing out the letters “R-e-s-p-e-c-t, find out what it means to me,” with the backing vocalists imploring “Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me,” like a sort of hip Greek chorus. Like Ray Charles, she brought much of gospel music’s soul to her secular recordings.

She also hit it big with “Think,” “Chain of Fools” and dozens of other hits, right on up until the 1980s with “Freeway of Love” and others that followed.

Franklin became the first soul music artist to perform at Bill Graham’s famed venue the Fillmore West — a place where youthful audiences were more accustomed to hearing counter-culture-based groups such as The Grateful Dead, Santanna and Jefferson Airplane during an era when psychedelia reigned on the West Coast. No one could be certain at the time how that audience would react to Aretha’s brand of soul music.

Not to worry. Aretha told that audience she wanted “Respect” and that’s what she got. The Fillmore West loved her — much like audiences did everywhere she performed.

I still remember being amazed when I learned that Aretha’s timeless recording of “Respect” was actually an Otis Redding cover song. Of course Otis did alright musically anyway, with his own enduring recordings of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and many more. Redding proved to be an adept cover artist as well, spinning out soulful, horn-driven versions of The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” to cite a couple of examples.

Aretha delved into The Beatles songbook as well, but instead of focusing on one of the group’s rockers, she settled on the more elegiac “Eleanor Rigby.”

I still remember watching the 1998 Grammys on television. Bob Dylan was up for Album of the Year for his amazing 1997 so-called comeback album “Time Out of Mind” and he was scheduled to perform his spooky song, “Lovesick,” so there was no way I was going to miss it.

I already considered Aretha one of the greatest female vocalists ever but I , along with the rest of the audience watching the the Grammy Awards, was about to learn just how great she was.

A half-hour into the program, the producer received word from Opera-great Luciano Pavoratti that he would not be able to perform his scheduled operatic rendition of “Nessun Dorma” and was canceling his appearance.

That left a giant hole in the program, with a conductor and orchestra already at the Grammy Awards show waiting to perform the song live with Pavoratti. The producer knew that Aretha had sang the opera during a tribute to Pavoratti a few days earlier. Would she be willing to go on live television, with no rehearsal and play the song live?

Aretha asked to listen to a cassette tape recording of the dress rehearsal, heard it and agreed to perform the opera live on the Grammy Awards telecast.

Her rendition of the opera — in Italian! — is considered by some to be the greatest awards show performance in history.

While I was preparing to write this column, I received an email from Dr. Bert Thomas asking if I’d noticed that Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley had died on the same day of the month, August 16. I had not — but I noted they both loved gospel music and were influenced in their early years by the sound of the church.

Although Aretha’s roots are usually thought of as occurring in Detroit, in the church her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, pastored, she was born in the city most-often associated with Elvis — in Memphis, Tennessee. Her parents, like Elvis, were originally from Mississippi.

Like many a rhythm and blues and country music singer of the times, Aretha got her start singing in church. That she never forgot her roots is obvious in the way she sang.

Both Elvis and Aretha brought that southern soulfulness to their entire body of work and their gospel roots infused everything they did in one way or another.

Although “Spirt in the Dark” is the title of one of Franklin’s biggest hits, my guess is she’ll long be remembered for the light she brought to the world. 

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