Today, I’ve been alternating between crying because she’s gone and smiling/grateful because she was here. Before Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince, Natalie Cole, Luther Vandross and others, to name a few, there was Aretha Louise Franklin, the Queen of Soul, heir apparent to the late Dinah Washington.
As a writer, I would probably need a thesaurus to describe the impact she had through her gifts, the lives she touched. In watching YouTube today, one of the things listed as a fear of hers was that she wouldn’t be remembered. Hmmm….multiple Grammys, iconic status, countless Billboard hits, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, guest artist at President Obama’s inauguration, as relevant today as she was in the ’60s…ain’t no way.
For me, memories of the Queen of Soul go back to 1966, sitting in her daddy’s church, New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. I was a 14-year-old on summer vacation from Minneapolis, visiting my relatives, who were members of said church. Of course, in a Baptist church, A and B musical selections are the norm during service. My African Methodist Episcopal upbringing didn’t prepare me for such a service, but her voice…once I heard her, “it was all over but the shoutin’,” that’s how powerful she touched me. And this was a year before “Respect” swept the charts.
Though she was born in Memphis, she spent the better part of her life in Detroit; Detroit loved Aretha, and Aretha loved Detroit. Yet she had an influence on music that spanned the globe. I give Aretha her props for never compromising her gospel roots–her “Amazing Grace” album is a powerful testimony. “Amazing Grace” and “God Will Take Care of You” brought me through many a low point in my life. “Young, Gifted and Black” was an anthem during my college days. What she represented for women’s rights and civil rights can never be denied. And yes, I still remember partying to “Rock Steady” and “Freeway of Love.”
I can’t stress this enough–some singers probably thought they had to compromise who they were to reach the level of success Aretha attained. The Queen never did. Her roots in the church didn’t hold her back. They propelled her forward, channeling them into and transcending every genre of music she sang, influencing so many artists, touching so many hearts with the soul deeply rooted inside her, the very thing that kept her rooted and grounded. With it, she broke down barriers, opened doors for the artists of today, commanded respect as an artist, as a woman of color, as a person.
Many who are paying tribute to her life have stated that her music was the soundtrack of their lives. I am no exception. Don’t even ask me what my favorite Aretha song is; too many of them are intertwined in my history. I can never forget, at the age of 73, Aretha “wrecking the house” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015. Whether one is an artist, musician, singer, sculptor, dancer, writer, actor/actress, there is a quote by her that is most relevant: “Be your own artist, and always be confident in what you’re doing.”
Yes, as I sit here listening to her songs, I can’t help but think: the UK may have Queen Elizabeth, but we had a queen as well, and her name was Aretha Franklin. She will always be the Queen. Let us all say a little prayer for her family now. Rest in peace, rest in power, Aretha.