The late 1990s were an embarrassing time for the female singing star, at least if we look back with the advantage of 20 years retrospect at the TV show VH1 Divas. The initial idea seemed respectable, but again this was back in an era when the network (and its sibling MTV) actually featured music. How about a program featuring the greatest female singers of our time? How about slapping a label on the program under which all these women would labor for the remainder of their careers? They were Divas, powerhouse singers who owned the stage with force, rage, and determination. Nobody else was there when it was their turn to shine. Dependable names like Whitney Houston, Cher, Tina Turner rolled through their numbers with expected flourishes. High points were reached, and thrills came when expected.
The problem with the Diva label is that the generation at that time, and those who followed, were expected to live with its demands. Divas were temperamental, tunnel-visioned, and perhaps heartless. The 1999 live performance of Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” was a perfect example of too much too soon, clashing styles and forces booming through their corner of the stage. Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Franklin, and Carole King (the song’s co-writer) sang the words, projected their voices, but the effect was numbing. The same can be said for the all-star tribute to Franklin two years later when the idea of subtlety (even in a classic stomper like “Respect”) was lost in favor of star turns from guest performers Mary J. Blige Jill Scott, Nelly Furtado, and many others.
The passing of Aretha Franklin on Thursday, 16 August 2018, is a devastating loss not just to the world of mass-marketed Divas but to the balladeer, the chanteuse, and the singer who knew her way around keyboards in a gospel song (“Bridge Over Troubled Waters”), country (“Gentle on My Mind”) or show tunes (“Somewhere”.) However complimentary it may have seemed when dreamed up by VH1 marketers, the idea of Divas comes with more than a tolerable degree of sexism. To have power as a female, through subtlety or volume, automatically came with restrictions. You might lay claim to being a Diva with no time for amateurs, but you still need to stay in your lane.
A brief survey of ten songs randomly selected through a six-year period (1968-1974) of Aretha Franklin’s 61-year recording career (starting with her debut live album of gospel standards Songs of Faith in 1956 and going through to 2017’s A Brand New Me) should bring light to the fact that there were many more levels to this singer/ pianist/ activist/ songwriter/ interpreter than justifiable claim to original Queen of Soul Divahood.
This cover of the Young Rascals song takes a simple pop number to church. Listen to the Sweet Inspirations backing vocals (Carolyn and Erma Franklin) bring in “Sunday, Sunday” (like the Mamas and the Papas “Monday Monday”) and Aretha reference Sam Cooke with “You Send Me”. Nothing that sounds this simple can be easy to make.
People (1968) This one, from the 1964 Broadway play, opens quietly, with a lush string arrangement and steady percussion. Franklin slides dangerously low, perilously high, builds with the power of the song in a way unimaginable if the listener was only familiar with Barbra Streisand’s signature version. Franklin doesn’t take this one to church so much as bring it for a walk through the park on a summer weekend afternoon, the sun shining, couples in love, everything in its place.
“Gentle on My Mind” (1969)
While the purpose of this tribute is to look at studio versions, an interesting duet Franklin performed with middle of the road vanilla white Andy Williams as a guest on his TV show testifies to the remarkable way she had of embracing convention on her terms, from her perspective. Skip to perhaps the one minute mark of this clip and watch her walk away from Williams and own the stage. He makes a hopeless attempt to come back, but it’s no longer his song. He surrenders because he has no choice. It’s painfully corny to watch this mix of Williams with Franklin, a mix that obviously doesn’t work. It’s embarrassing to think that Franklin may have had no choice but to appear on shows like this to make a living and appeal to a white audience as well as a wide audience, but she made it her own.
“This Girl’s in Love with You” (1970)
The Burt Bacharach/Hal David catalog worked because the songs were stable, malleable, willing and able to bend. Franklin takes this song to places unimaginable if it had just stayed with Dionne Warwick or Herb Alpert. She soars in and leaves no listener unconvinced that there’s a need being unfulfilled.
“The Weight” (1970)
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the first thing we hear in this recording of the classic from the Band is Duane Allman’s swampy slide guitar. He wanders throughout, making a place for himself between verses. We think it might stay slow, brooding, but the horns come in, the backing vocals, the tambourine. It won’t match what the Staple Singers did with this song, but Franklin puts her stamp on this slice of soul/gospel/rock.
“Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1971)
How do you take the gospel aspirations of the original Simon and Garfunkel standard from just a year earlier and re-shape it into what it should have been all along? Listen to the opening. There’s bass, organ, electric piano, a chorus imploring “Don’t trouble the water / Still water runs deep.” Aretha responds: “I know that.” She plays an instrumental verse on that piano. She comes in, eventually, after almost two minutes. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm section always knows what time it is and they know what to do here. King Curtis comes in on saxophone. Billy Preston was already there on organ and Franklin herself on piano. Where the original final verse (“Sail on Silverbird…”) seemed an afterthought, Franklin embraces all the hope contained in this pain. Troubles have come, but I will always be there to save you.
“The Long and Winding Road” (1972)
Here is another example, from the same sessions that yielded the above song, where the stripped down power overwhelms without shattering. Listen to the power of the bass, the swirling organ throughout, the gospel stomp about halfway through until the end. Franklin abandons any notion that this should be an elegiac farewell (as the Beatles original always sounded, smothered in its Phil Spector strings production style) and instead renders it a celebration. I’ve traveled this road with you. We may say our farewells now, but remember it’s been a good ride. Remember the role I played in us getting here.
“Border Song (Holy Moses)” (1972)
Again, this is a prime example of the way Franklin was able to extract the simple elements of gospel that were in the original and spread it throughout the recording. Elton John’s original was certainly infused with an appreciation of the form, but compare it to this version, and it comes off as more flirtation than anything else. Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, and Elton John were tourists in gospel. Aretha Franklin was a permanent resident.
Franklin takes the lead here, on piano and everywhere else. Quincy Jones is here. Phil Woods is playing alto sax. The strings come, and the tears start probably ninety seconds into this tale of hope, this testimony to perseverance and stability anywhere but here and now. We know this Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein West Side Story song from Barbra Streisand and scores of other Broadway and American standard singers (even a heartfelt version from Tom Waits), but few versions managed to soar like this one.
“A Song For You” (1974)
How do you end an exploration of a great American singer’s repertoire and range when you know it’s just a small slice of a larger pie? Do you discount over four decades that followed this recording? Do you dismiss the “Nessun Dorma” operatic performance from the 1998 Grammy Awards when she filled in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti? No, you stay with the songs. You go to one of the better tributes to the life of a traveling singer, Leon Russell’s “A Song For You”, recorded in 1974 and heard here in an undeniably strong 2011 performance, aided by fellow Rock and Roll Hall performers Dennis Edwards and Ronald Isley. This one takes its time. There’s no ascension towards a climax, no release, because of everything here about the catch, the pursuit of the moment. Many greats recorded this song, including Ray Charles. Here, Aretha Franklin sings it for you.
“The Star-Spangled Banner”
It’s almost comforting to think that somebody with the stature and importance of Aretha Franklin will no longer have to live in this national climate that has turned so vicious and unapologetically racist, aided and abetted from the seats of power where she sang the National Anthem less than a decade ago, where white nationalists and unrepentant Nazis are allowed a seat at the table of ideological give and take. Think back in fondness at the hat she wore while singing at President Barack Obama’s January 2009 inauguration and flashback to 1939 and Marian Anderson, an African-American woman denied permission, by the Daughters of the American Revolution, (DAR), to sing to an integrated audience at their Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. The ghosts of such injustices will never fail to swirl through our collective consciousness. Aretha Franklin was more than just an easily identifiable Diva, the Queen of Soul, or a legendary singer. She was The Singer.