Every once in a while, these tributes make me want to reach out and shake people and yell, “She was more than one song!” Because she was. The song she’s famous for was a cover, too. Her discography has its own Wikipedia page, and one-hit wonders don’t get that. Okay, her acting career is, let’s face it, one episode of Room 222 and both Blues Brothers movies. It is also depressing how much her “soundtrack” entries are just people using “Respect.” But Aretha Franklin was a tough woman with a powerful voice, and there are definitely worse legacies.
Her parents were a preacher and a singer in a turbulent relationship. They’d divorced by the time she was six; her mother died before she was ten. One of the people who helped raise her was Mahalia Jackson, so between her mother and her quasi-adopted family, there was a lot of support for her as a singer. She started with gospel; at sixteen, she was touring with Martin Luther King, Jr. At eighteen, she told her father she wanted to go into pop music. Her father steered her to Columbia, which was a bad fit, despite Sam Cooke’s attempt to get her onto RCA. After several years of limited success, she switched to Atlantic Records.
And that is where you know her from. While at Atlantic, she recorded “Respect,” her first number one hit. She had a total of twenty songs top the R&B charts, including “Freeway of Love” from 1985. Her own songs have been covered over and over again as well—I know the En Vogue cover of “Something He Can Feel” better than Franklin’s own from the movie soundtrack of Sparkle. “Chain of Fools” has a whole section of covers on its Wikipedia page. I’m now kind of curious as to exactly how many Aretha Franklin songs are in or were considered for The Commitments.
Honestly, in the last few years, she was almost as famous as an icon as anything else. That spectacular hat she wore to Barack Obama’s inauguration sold out almost immediately. She had six honorary doctorates in music, plus an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, an honorary Doctor of Arts and, for some reason, an honorary Doctor of Law. Rolling Stone readers have twice voted her the greatest singer of the rock era. Her influence, it seems to me, cannot be overestimated—she’s the second woman to have been inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame, and she hasn’t even performed there since 1984, since she apparently had a severe fear of flying. Michigan even declared her voice a natural resource.
I have these mental charts of musical influence. Family trees, if you will. And I’m not sure there’s a singer since about 1970 who doesn’t have Aretha Franklin somewhere on theirs. Oh, there are the obvious ones, like Franklin’s actual “honorary niece” Whitney Houston. But there’s also an announced upcoming biopic starring Jennifer Hudson. And even people who don’t have anything approaching Franklin’s voice—and let’s be real, that’s practically everyone—can get something out of absorbing her style at least a little. Which, of course, we’ve had decades to do. Aretha’s gone. The music isn’t.