I grew up about an hour south of Detroit in Toledo, Ohio. As a kid, my favorite radio station broadcast from Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit. CKLW played all the popular rock music plus a lot of Motown and soul music. I loved it all.
In 1967, listening to the radio, I first heard Aretha Franklin sing. This young, white girl from the suburbs was transfixed. I had never heard such power and emotion in a voice. I was not familiar with gospel music back then, and was therefore unprepared for the soul-stirring runs and phrasings Aretha employed in even the simplest song.
I loved the Beatles, but they always sounded happy. Aretha sang from a place deep inside herself. Her voice was full of pain, joy, hardship, and hope. Listening to her was an almost religious experience for me, then and now.
She took a song written and recorded by Otis Redding about a man coming home from work and asking his wife for his “propers” and transformed it. In Aretha’s version, we heard not only a woman demanding respect from her man, but also a black woman demanding respect in a white-dominated society.
As Barack Obama said in a statement after her death, “In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade – our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.”
Even white, suburban kids like me felt all of that when Aretha Franklin sang.
Obama continued, “She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”
Aretha Franklin’s voice embodied a generation, my generation. We sang along with her as we too demanded respect, both personally and politically. She comforted us with her song at the funeral for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and sang during the inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama.
On Franklin’s death, nearly every news outlet showed the clip of Aretha singing “A Natural Woman” to honor the song’s composer Carole King in 2015. Her appearance was a surprise to everyone in attendance that night. She blew the roof off the building, as King and the Obamas delightedly looked on. Their reactions mirrored those of every one who was watching.
There was no mistaking that voice. As Stevie Wonder, who had written a song for Franklin, said last week on CBS This Morning, “When she sings your song, she takes it, and you don’t get it back.”
Aretha was a talented piano player and loved all kinds of music. “Whatever it is, I can sing it,” she once said.
In 1998, when Luciano Pavarotti cancelled a performance at the Grammy’s a mere thirty minutes before the show started, the producer asked Aretha if she could sing Pavarotti’s signature aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s opera Turnadot in his place, in Italian, on very short notice. She absolutely killed it.
Aretha Franklin singing opera — and doing it well, while still somehow sounding quintessentially Aretha — was a delightful, unexpected revelation for most of us.
She was a diva in the purest sense of the word – full of both talent and more than a little attitude. If you haven’t seen it, check out Aretha’s performance on the 1998 “Divas Live” concert originally on VH1. She shared the stage with powerhouse performers Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Gloria Estefan, and Carole King. She out-sang them all.
On the show’s finale, “A Natural Woman,” Aretha just took over. It became a master class in singing and controlling a song. That night, she truly was the greatest diva of them all.
Aretha’s death is a huge loss. She was so important in breaking down barriers in music and in society. And she was simply the best.
I just assumed she’d always be here, sending musical notes – and all of us who were listening to them– soaring to the heavens.
Rest in peace, Queen of Soul. We will love you forever and ever.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.