1. The Voice — God-given, soulful, powerful, steeped in gospel and blues traditions, sometimes with jazz flavorings. Instantly recognizable.
2. The Recordings — What an incredible body of work! Awesome is not too strong a word to describe a recording history that dates back to 1960 when Franklin had her first national chart entry.
3. The Influence — Aretha has been copied, consciously and subconsciously, many times over the years, mostly to no avail.
4. “Respect” and “Do Right Woman-Do Right Man.”
5. Durability — Stars come and go. So do trends. But the Queen of Soul is always there.
6. Representation — In so many ways, Aretha Franklin is the embodiment of soul singing. She is soul. One journalist wrote of Aretha Franklin’s “ability to inject whatever she may be singing with gut-wrenching soul.” Not everyone is aware of the fact that her voice has been officially declared a “Natural Wonder” by the State of Michigan.
7. “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Ain’t No Way.”
8. Willingness to Adapt — Although Aretha Franklin’s foundation is traditional R&B — “old school” in the most positive sense of the term — she is always ready and able to work with new and/or younger producers and writers. It is not a matter of attempting to alter her basic style. Rather, it is presenting a classic voice in a newer setting. Collaborations with, among others, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Lauryn Hill, Narada Michael Walden and Luther Vandross, have been fruitful.
9. “Dr. Feelgood” and “Jump to It.”
10. No Sweat — Aretha never seems to be fighting to hold on to her title, nor has she ever seemed intimidated by other female vocalists. (She was, however, annoyed when, in 1975, some people in the media were saying the newly-arrived Natalie Cole just might be “the new Queen of Soul.”)
11. The Grammys — The Grammy Award is the recording industry’s highest honor. Aretha Franklin has won an amazing 18 Grammys. She holds the record for the most Best Female R&B Vocal Performance Grammys, from 1968 to 2006. Eight were won in consecutive years.
12. “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” and “Rock Steady.”
13. Young Appeal — Of course, Aretha Franklin’s fan base — that is, the people who buy her CDs and come to her performances — consists primarily of people “of a certain age.” However, younger singers such as Fantasia, Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey have publicly expressed their admiration for the Queen of Soul. One young female singer said she was at a recording industry event and Aretha Franklin was in the next room. As much as she wanted to meet her, the singer said, “I couldn’t be in the same room with Aretha Franklin.”
14. Remakes — Aretha Franklin has recorded a number of noteworthy remakes, not taking the songs away from the original artists, but making them, in one sense, her own. That would include “Spanish Harlem” and “Don’t Play That Song,” both by Ben E. King, Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” Lulu’s “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby)” and Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Share Your Love With Me.”
The strongest example of that is her signature song, “Respect,” which had been a Top 10 R&B hit for its composer, Otis Redding, about two years earlier.
Admittedly, though, it hasn’t always worked. There were a few misses, such as Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” and the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
15. Firsts — Aretha Franklin was the first female to be voted into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
16. “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” and “Think.”
17. Collaborations — There have been a number of outstanding duet recordings, including “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (with George Michael), “I Wanna Make It Up to You” (with Levi Stubbs), “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” (with Eurythmics/Annie Lennox), “Ever Changing Times” (with Michael McDonald) and “Love All the Hurt Away” (with George Benson).
18. Church/Gospel Acceptance — Many singers have taken flak after leaving gospel music for the more lucrative and expansive world of R&B. Early on, Aretha did too, but whenever she returns to gospel singing now, she is welcome, and that includes recording in churches.
19. “Call Me” and “A Rose is Still a Rose.”
20. Certain Performances — A friend of mine recently gave me a DVD of an Aretha Franklin concert that took place in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1968. I love it! Prime Aretha. (I have no idea where he got the DVD from.) And her background singers, called the Moniques and featuring her sister, Carolyn Franklin, were perfect, in voice and choreography.
That’s another thing about the Queen of Soul. She always has great background singers. It could be the Sweet Inspirations, the Moniques, the Ridgeway sisters or long-serving vocalists such as Brenda Franklin Corbett and Margaret Branch. No matter who it is, they will be good.
21. “Chain of Fools” and “Another Night.”
22. The Albums — Among the best are “Lady Soul” (featuring an electrifying rendition of the Impressions/Curtis Mayfield classic “People Get Ready”), “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” “Young, Gifted and Black,” “Amazing Grace,” “This Girl’s in Love With You,” “Sparkle” and “Aretha Now.”
23. Keyboard Skills — It is amazing that Franklin can sit down on a piano stool, sing that intensely and play piano so effectively at the same time. Seems that each would require such concentration that doing something else simultaneously would be next to impossible.
24. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Willing to Forgive.”
25. Songwriting — The Queen of Soul wrote several of her hits.
26. The Early Years — It has often been said that Aretha Franklin’s years with Columbia Records were uneventful. Indeed, the company has admitted not knowing exactly what to do with Franklin (they saw her more as a jazzy pop/soul stylist than a straight-out R&B singer). But she did made some good records at Columbia, including “Runnin’ Out of Fools,” “Won’t Be Long,” “Cry Like a Baby” and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.”
27. Heart — The Queen of Soul has her “ways,” some of them “diva-based,” but she has a good heart. For example, she paid for the funeral of a down-and-out singer, gave a free performance at a senior citizens home, organized a national prayer vigil for Luther Vandross, gave college scholarships, presented a series of free gospel concerts, gave another singer (Esther Phillips) one of her Grammy Awards because she felt that Phillips was deserving, was instrumental in the Spinners being signed by Atlantic Records, thus kicking their career into high gear, etc.
28. “Baby I Love You” and “The House That Jack Built.”
29. Willingness to Experiment — Aretha has frequently recorded and performed in jazz settings (one album was produced by Quincy Jones), dared to open a concert with “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (somehow it worked) and even performed an aria on national television (“Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot).
30. Presidential Honors — In 1999, the Queen of Soul was awarded The National Medal of the Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton, and in 2005 she received The Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by President George W. Bush.
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