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Why Aretha Franklin Was America’s Greatest Voice

She made some of pop’s most cathartic music, but her mystery only deepened over time

1994:  Soul singer Aretha Franklin performing at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.  (Photo by Leon Morris/Getty Images)

Rob Sheffield pays tribute to the greatness, and enduring mystery, of Aretha Franklin.

Leon Morris/Getty

The most beautiful words ever spoken about Aretha Franklin came from her friend and producer Luther Vandross, back in 1982: “This woman ain’t entertainment. She’s done opened the books to my life and told everybody. Like Roberta Flack used to say in ‘Killing Me Softly,’ ‘I thought he found my letters and read them all out loud.’ She was the spokesperson for a lot of people and how they feel.” Aretha made countless listeners people feel that way, which is why she reigned as the greatest rock, pop or soul singer ever. Over 50 years, she pillaged every genre of American music, but no matter what style she was singing, she created that sense of raw intimacy — the toughest and truest of American voices. Luther called it right and exact: This woman wasn’t entertainment.

Aretha made some of pop’s most emotionally cathartic music — there’s no treatment for heartbreak like a long night spent with Spirit in the Dark, Lady Soul or Young, Gifted and Black. Yet it’s always surprising how many secrets she held back. “Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows,” her Atlantic mentor Jerry Wexler called her. She had the mystique of a deeply wounded introvert who seemed shy until she opened her mouth and turned into a fire-breathing monarch. “People like to conjecture about the sadness within me,” she said in 1974. “Well, there isn’t any.” Hmmmm — maybe, maybe not. But compared to other divas, she had zero interest in giving away her own inner torments. Aretha didn’t want to tell you who she was. She wanted to tell you who you were.

When David Bowie presented the Grammy Award in 1975 for Best Female R&B Vocal, he was thrilled at the honor of giving this award to (as he put it) “La Supreme Femme Noir.” When Aretha won, she told the crowd, “Wow, this is so good, I could kiss David Bowie!” (“Which she didn’t,” he said sadly in 1999. “So I slunk off stage left.” Who else could make Bowie spend all those years mourning a missed kiss?) But in the 1974 documentary Cracked Actor you can see what she meant to Bowie and doomed creatures like him. In the film’s most famous scene, he sits in the back of the limo, listening to Aretha’s “Natural Woman” on the radio, singing along with a boyish grin. Bowie is clearly in rough shape, a lacquered skeleton in a Borsalino hat, babbling as he sips milk and stares out the window at the desert landscape. It’s almost like Aretha is the sole human connection that’s holding him together. She played that role in a lot of our lives.

That’s why there’s so much mystery even in her most famous hits. Like “Respect” — a pop classic you’ve heard millions of times (almost certainly in the past 24 hours). But even that mega-exposed song is full of secrets and riddles. Otis Redding wrote it, yet Aretha stole it along with her backup singers, her sisters Carolyn and Erma. They made a sly joke out of chanting her nickname “Ree, Ree, Ree, Ree” — as if to serve notice that Miss Ree has claimed the song, from no less than Otis Redding himself. She wrote herself right into “Respect,” so that anyone who sings it is calling her name. Including Otis Redding — whenever he sang it live, he introduced it as “a song that a girl took away from me.” But for him, that was the ultimate honor. Otis spent the rest of his life bragging about how Aretha stole his song. Who wouldn’t?

At the climax of her version, Aretha adds a break that’s not in Redding’s original: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Take out T-C-P!” What does that mean? Well, when you take the T, C and P out of “Respect,” what you get is REE’S. And that’s what she’s doing to this song, making it Ree’s. Every sketchy lyric site tries to transcribe this line as “take care, T.C.B.,” even though that’s very obviously not what she’s singing — it just means they have no idea what’s going on. (It’s not that hard to hear the difference between a voiced bilabial plosive and an unvoiced one, right?) But Aretha delighted in leaving people baffled. You will keep hearing “Respect” for the rest of your life without figuring this song out.

She was a contemporary of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, but she sounded so much more world-weary — as Greil Marcus wrote in Stranded, she made the Rolling Stones sound like little kids. Like these peers, she came to pop music as an outsider — her Detroit church upbringing was as foreign to the Top 40 as Liverpool or Hibbing. Dylan rhapsodized about her all through his novel Tarantula, written in 1966, right from the very first page: “aretha/ crystal jukebox queen of hymn … aretha with no goals, eternally single & one step soft of heaven/ let it be understood that she owns this melody along with her emotional diplomats & her earth & her musical secrets.”

Dylan could have been describing so many moments in her wild career. For every hit she had, there were so many glorious oddities like “Good to Me As I Am to You,” the lost 1967 gem where she outscreams Eric Clapton’s guitar, or the manic break-up anthem “Pullin’” or her country claim on “Gentle on My Mind.” On her 2007 Rare and Unreleased, she even shines in a 1970 outtake of “My Way” — I’m not a fan of that song, to say the least, but Aretha finds the same soul fire in it that Bowie did when he rewrote it as “Life On Mars?”

Her 1982 Jump To It is an eternal rainy-day favorite of mine — a high-gloss Quiet Storm soul epiphany lovingly produced by Luther Vandross. Their duet “It’s Just Your Love” is a real tearjerker, especially when the singers trade “I love you” whispers at the three-minute point. But the high point is the finale “Just My Daydream,” written for her by Smokey Robinson — Aretha singing Smokey is as good as it gets.

You could make a case that the Eighties were Aretha’s decade. No 1960s star had a better 1980s run, though Lou Reed and Smokey came close. She kicked off the decade with her one-scene sensation in The Blues Brothers, as the truck-stop waitress who hollers “Don’t blaspheme in here!” and belts “Think.” It burned her voice into the brains of a whole new generation. That same year, Steely Dan scored the hit “Hey Nineteen,” lamenting the fact that their underage chiquititas never heard of the Queen of Soul. (For Fagen and Becker, Aretha was the rare name too sacred to mock.) But “Hey Nineteen” happened at the very last moment when it was still possible to grow up without hearing that voice. The blockbuster soundtrack to The Big Chill (including “Natural Woman”) blew up in 1983 and made Aretha a cultural presence, after years when she couldn’t get arrested on mainstream radio.

With her profile so high, Aretha picked a great moment to start making top-notch records again. Love All the Hurt Away was her version of a Doobie Brothers album, with the guys from Toto backing her up on a strange romp through “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Who’s Zoomin’ Who? was her long-overdue comeback smash in 1985, from the synth-funk title track (“Fish in the sea, but they ain’t me!”) to the long-forgotten but fantastic middle-aged sex romp “Another Night.” For Eighties New Wave kids, Aretha represented pure intensity and integrity, which is why we idolized her. Boy George covered her Sparkle classic “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” (on an Afrika Bambaataa album!), while Scritti Politti paid tribute in their 1984 synth-pop classic “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin).” Green Gartside sang with the wistful sigh of every art-damaged big-hair New Wave poseur who ever wished he had a heart sincere and brave enough to go to bed and pray like Aretha Franklin.

The Queen never needed to make any kind of comeback again — she was firmly established once and for all. She remained a mystery to the end. Always a queen with a regal regard for her turf, Aretha timed her grand exit to fall on Elvis’ death day, totally overshadow Madonna’s 60th birthday, and steal the spotlight from Nicki Minaj, who dropped an album last week she had the cheek to call Queen. Just another way for Aretha to remind us who built the throne. For the rest of all our lives, Aretha’s music will keep finding new ways to remind us who she was. And — even more importantly — who we are.

In This Article: Aretha Franklin

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