Today is the birthday of Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul. The metaphor of royal lineage has some application in Franklin’s case. Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, was the renowned Detroit preacher whose New Bethel Baptist Church provided the original venue for Aretha and her sisters, Erma and Caroline.
She became a child star as a gospel singer and was signed at age eighteen to a recording contract at Columbia Records by the legendary producer John Hammond (the guy who signed Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, among many others). At Columbia Aretha floundered singing popular music, never finding a groove to showcase her awesome talent.
Aretha arrived in the spring of 1967, courtesy of Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records. Wexler signed Aretha to Atlantic in the fall of 1966. He sat Aretha at a piano and placed her in the midst of sympathetic musicians at the famed Muscle Shoals Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)” was the result, and everyone involved knew that Aretha had found herself musically.
The session resumed in New York and included the recording of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” the song that broke Aretha nationally overnight. According to Peter Guralnick, Redding presciently told Wexler upon hearing Aretha’s version of “Respect” for the first time: “I just lost my song. That girl took it away from me.” Onstage at the Monterrey International Pop Festival later that year, he repeated: “The girl took that song away from me.” If you heard the song in the spring of 1967, you remember: She took the song away from him.
Aretha’s glorious body of work on Atlantic continued into the mid-1970’s. The albums are full of buried treasures such as “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Dr. Feelgood” and “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” from her first Atlantic album, or “With Pen in Hand” and “A Song for You” from 1974’s “Let Me in Your Life,” an album that is itself a buried treasure. Check ’em out.
We saw Aretha perform live at the University of Minnesota within the past 10 years. She acknowledged the presence of Bonnie Raitt in the audience that night by singing Raitt’s song “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and just blowing the audience away — a great moment.
It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the optimism represented by the dawn of Aretha’s career in the heyday of soul music; I certainly feel nostalgic listening now to “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream.” Well, it seems to have been lost, and more than the music has suffered as a result. Aretha, however, remains a fine artist with a distinguished body of work and a voice crying to be heard.