The death of Aretha Franklin has prompted a deluge of tributes and memories shared by singers, celebrities and pundits who were inspired by the legendary Queen of Soul. As a baby boomer who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, I hear Franklin’s repertoire as the soundtrack accompanying a significant era in pop culture and women’s musical history.
Many people point to Diana Ross and the Supremes as performers who broke ground in entertainment. They were so influential that the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls” was based on their careers and relationships. In fact, the character of Effie in that show, who belts out the famous, “And I am Telling You,” torch song, is much more “Aretha” in both style and delivery of that popular number.
While the Supremes wore extravagant costumes, sensational wigs and diamonds, singing with synchronized moves, Aretha performed free of staged choreography. She was a natural woman in more than lyrics alone. Her vocal power seemed to emanate from every cell in her body. As with many gospel singers whose experience began by singing in church, Aretha would throw back her head, open her arms and cover audiences with her musical blanket of emotions. Her songs of praise included “Precious Lord,” which she sang at the memorial service for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the 1970s there were frequently musical comparisons. Who was the greater vocal powerhouse? Tina Turner or Aretha? In March 1970, an article in the New York Times was titled, “If Aretha’s Around, Who Needs Janis?” The article concluded there was no contest.
Unlike the late Janis Joplin, Aretha soulfully sang the blues, opening her heart onstage, yet keeping her personal life grounded. Unlike another great from that time, Grace Slick, Aretha never retired. Perhaps this is one reason so many assumed Aretha would never leave us. In 2015 she performed in tribute to her friend and colleague, Carole King, at the Kennedy Center Honors. The audience included President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle. How reassuring that evening to see Aretha seated at the piano, accompanying herself, singing in all her glory, adorned in a mink coat. As she stood, crossing center stage, the mink was dropped to the floor, and Aretha once again opened her arms wide as she hit her crescendo. The audience erupted in a standing ovation. The president himself had to wipe away a tear.
Most impressive, Aretha’s message was one of empowerment. She sang “Respect” as some female singers wailed about being victims of love gone wrong. In 1968, Tammy Wynette hit the charts with “Stand by Your Man,” not exactly an anthem for the women’s liberation movement of the time. How much more encouraging for women of my generation to sing out, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Perhaps this is one reason the songs of Aretha Franklin resonated with women of all races. In 2018, these messages are needed now more than ever.
What better time for Broadway to create a new musical inspired by the life and songs of Aretha Franklin? “Jersey Boys,” “Beautiful,” “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Motown” and the newest “Summer,” based on the career of disco legend Donna Summer, have paid homage to pop, R&B and rock music legends. Songs by Abba, Queen and the Go-Go’s have been used to create Broadway plots, albeit unrelated to the careers of the artists themselves. Audiences today would flock to a show featuring songs such as “Think” and “Chain of Fools.”
Aretha’s songs will find new audiences, thanks to news coverage paying tribute to her remarkable career. YouTube videos capture her immortal work, free of the high-tech autotuning so commonly used by artists today. Aretha Franklin had her own built-in-microphone with breath control unlike anyone else. She needed no special effects, pyrotechnics, cryogenics or confetti to rock the house. Aretha Franklin was the ultimate example of artistic authenticity: a performer true to herself, honest in her connection to the audience.
Carolyn Buck (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a local writer and performing arts educator.