It is hard to think of someone more ubiquitous in providing influence and inspiration than singer, songwriter, and musician Aretha Franklin.
An icon in music, it would be easy to characterize her legacy simply by listing the recognition she received across more than five decades of recording history — 17 Grammy awards and 31 Grammy nominations. Her first win came with her first nomination in 1968 (a win in the best R&B vocal performance category for her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect”) and the last in 2008 (a win in the best gospel/contemporary Christian music category for her duet with Mary J. Blige on “Never Gonna Break My Faith”). Her influence was further recognized when she became the first female musician inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
But what cements her legacy is not encapsulated in a trophy or enshrinement, but rather in how far reaching her voice influenced and changed music, empowering women to find their voice and command respect without compromise.
And a career without compromise remains a tough road for any musician to travel on. With forces trying to pigeonhole musicians into genres and identities that can be marketed and sold, Aretha Franklin is evidence that paving your own road has its rewards. Her earliest musical roots lie squarely in the gospel space and as she expanded and explored into more secular spaces of soul, R&B, and pop, it became more about completing a picture rather than settling on an identity, fusing different aspects to create a sound that is uniquely Aretha. Even more impressive is that she was able to accomplish all this while remaining relevant in a 50+ year career regardless of the trend of the day in an ever-changing musical landscape.
Her songs encapsulated that notion of empowerment, starting with that first Grammy-winning song, which accomplishes the rare feat of a cover recording becoming the definitive version of that song. Other songs in her repertoire speak to that, including “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, and “Think”, the latter of which makes an appearance in the 1980s film The Blues Brothers, and features Aretha performing it with all the spirit the song entails. In just her short six-minute appearance in that movie, you can see just how powerful she is as a performer and how she can draw upon all her secular musical and gospel roots to create an everlasting moment in just one scene.
And that musical legacy will survive well beyond her days as evidenced by the multitude of artists across all genres that draw upon her body of work to cover from their own perspective (remember the hard rock version of “Chain of Fools” from the band Little Caesar, released in 1989?) and to pay tribute to the Queen of Soul.
What makes Aretha’s history and story even more inspiring is that she was able to stay true to her musical vision in a time when African-Americans were fighting for basic rights. And not only that, she was able to use her music to be not only a soundtrack for the civil rights movement, but she also put her money where her soulful voice was and helped financially support Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Rev. Jesse Jackson recently told the Detroit Free Press how she quietly funded payroll and would work with Harry Belefonte to help keep the civil rights movement moving, using her voice in concert to raise money without keeping any for herself.
And she stepped up to support women of color in their time of need, even if she was not necessarily in support of their beliefs. She was famously quoted in a 1971 interview in Jet Magazine as offering to post bail for then jailed Angie Davis.
“Angela Davis must go free,” Franklin said in that interview. “Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up… and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people.”
Of course, Franklin had other odds stacked against her. The queen of soul had four children — she was only 14 years old when she had her first, and had to balance motherhood with schooling and later, stardom.
Aretha Franklin’s star will continue to shine as a beacon of hope — immortalized in songs that inspire and empower and backed with deeds that reflect that the songs she gave the world were not simply songs but a glimpse into the kind of life that she lived. She is a true representation of the power that music has to change the world.
GT is a contributing writer for Rockmommy.