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Remembering Aretha Franklin

Remembering Aretha Franklin

On August 16th, 2018, the world lost one of the most celebrated and most influential vocalists ever to grace the music industry: The Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. She was 76 when she passed away at home in Detroit, her publicist revealing that she was in the advanced stage of pancreatic cancer. [1] As we mourn her passing, let’s take a look back at her life and appreciate her impact on music and in the industry, as well as the remarkable legacy she left behind.

Biography

Born 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, Franklin grew up during the prelude to Soul music. Her father, Reverend Clarence La Vaughan Franklin, began working at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where he became a nationally renowned preacher and gave his daughter her first start in her singing career.[2] Due to her father’s fame, many of the greats came through her childhood home, such as Duke Ellington, Sam Cooke, and one of her greatest gospel influences, Clara Ward. [3] She was a gifted child, showing tremendous intuition and aptitude in her singing as well as her piano playing. Smokey Robinson, front man of The Miracles, grew up with Aretha in Detroit and recalls that “when Aretha sat down at the piano as a little girl, she played these fully voiced gospel chords that were almost orchestral — heavy, weighty, magnificent, full-blown gospel stuff.” [4] Her father’s church is also where she began to record, releasing her first album, Song of Faith, in 1956 at only fourteen, and shortly after began touring with her father’s “Revival Tour.” [2] In 1960, after honing her talents on the stage, she moved to New York and was signed to Columbia Records, who released her album Aretha a year later.

She quickly became a success, making a name for herself in the R&B Charts with “Today I Sing The Blues,” which landed Franklin her first Top 10 spot only two months after the song was released. Over the course of her career, she achieved an impressive fifty-two Top 10 hits on the R&B charts, twenty of which went all the way to No. 1 matched only by Stevie Wonder. [5] She released an incredible forty-two studio albums in her time, winning eighteen of her forty-four Grammy Nominations, and so it is no surprise that the award for Best R&B Female Performance is dubbed “The Aretha Franklin Award.” [3] Rolling Stone named her as the greatest singer of all time in a poll that came out in 2010, captioned with a touching tribute from singer-songwriter, Mary J. Blige: “Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.” [6] After her passing on August 16th, her combined album and digital song sales increased by 1,568 percent compared to the previous day, according to an initial sales report from Nielsen Music, [7] which goes to show how much people were affected by the news of her death, and it is surely a testament to her legacy.

Social Impact

Aretha Franklin was a role model for young black female artists, being the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and more importantly, appealing for racial tolerance and equality through her music. One of her most famous works is her rendition of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” which has sold millions of copies and was embraced as an anthem of black liberation and female equality. [3] Redding’s original lyrics talked about a man asking his wife for respect when he came home, a fairly traditional dynamic of couples in the 1960s, but Franklin made her version resonant by changing the perspective to that of a woman asking for respect when her man got home. The song was also embraced by the civil rights movement, Reiland Rabaka saying it had “a particular meaning for the black freedom movement, for the civil rights movement, for the black power movement, and for black women involved in the women’s liberation movement at that time.” [8] During a time of social injustice, the song kept the faith of civil rights activists in their cause and helped to strengthen it, according to Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon, [9] and Aretha herself recognized that it was “one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement.” [8] These are facts that can easily be overlooked when measuring the impact of songs just based on Grammy Nominations or chart position, and so it is important to mention, especially when talking about the legacy of the Queen.

Business

The song “Respect” also represents long-standing issues in copyright law and artist rights. In a way that some might call ironic, “Respect” racked up roughly seven million plays on national radio stations, but Aretha Franklin saw no monies generated from that. In the US, radio stations only used to pay royalties to the songwriters, not the performer of the song or the owner of the sound recording. In this case, Otis Redding’s Estate was paid every time Franklin’s version was aired on the radio, but she never was. [10] Efforts to change this law have seen pushback from broadcasters in the past, who argue that performers gain a benefit from the promotion they receive; however, Title II of the Music Modernization Act (called “The Classics Protection and Access Act”) protects pre-1972 works for 95 years after first publication. [11] Tragically, this comes too late for the Queen of Soul, although her role in getting this unfair practice brought in front of Congress will not go unnoticed, and it should be recognized by all who seek to follow in her footsteps. Franklin was also notorious for taking care of her own business, demanding to be paid in cash when she used to perform because African-American artists were routinely ripped off by white promoters. [12] She would always have her purse with her on stage and after the show, she would pay her 20-30-person entourage in cash. Coupled with her fear of flying, she was not the highest-paid celebrity even at the height of her fame, but she had the respect in the industry. Michael Levitt, a television producer who worked with her, says that it was her way or no way, and they didn’t care because she was worth it. [12]

Surprisingly, Franklin did not leave a will when she died and consequently, her four sons will equally divide her assets as per Michigan law. [13] There seems to be no internal family conflict, reports The Guardian, but the value of her estate is sure to be a point of contention as attorneys will try to downplay its value for tax purposes, while the IRS will be doing the opposite. [13]

Conclusion

In conclusion, Aretha Franklin was without a doubt the Queen of Soul and one of the greatest musical influences of the modern era. She was not only a flawless vocalist and musician, but also her music spread beyond the boundaries of the stage and to the cause of civil rights, social activism, and artist rights. She is an excellent role model for musicians and social activists alike, and her legacy will never be forgotten.

Endnotes:

[1] Pareles, Jon. 2018. Aretha Franklin, Indomitable ‘Queen of Soul,’ Dies at 76. August 16. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/16/obituaries/aretha-franklin-dead.html.

[2] Editors, Biography.com. 2018. Aretha Franklin Biography. August 30. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.biography.com/people/aretha-franklin-9301157.

[3] Maycock, James, and Phil Shaw. 2018. Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul who won 18 Grammys, sold 75 million records – and drew a tear from Obama. August 16. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/aretha-franklin-dead-queen-soul-music-singer-atlantic-detroit-a8489536.html.

[4] Lindblad, Peter. 2010. Pride, pain and prodigy: Discover the real Aretha Franklin. April 21. Accessed October 30, 2018. http://www.goldminemag.com/articles/pride-pain-and-prodigy-discover-the-real-aretha-franklin.

[5] Anderson, Trevor. 2018. Aretha Franklin’s Record-Setting Achievements on Billboard’s R&B Charts. August 16. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8470637/aretha-franklin-billboard-rb-soul-charts-record-achievements.

[6] Rolling Stone. 2010. 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. December 3. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/100-greatest-singers-of-all-time-147019/aretha-franklin-6-227696/.

[7] Caulfield, Keith. 2018. Aretha Franklin’s Music Sales Surge in U.S. Following Her Death. August 17. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/aretha-franklin-dead-music-sales-up-1568-us-1135658.

[8] North, Anna. 2018. The political and cultural impact of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” explained. August 17. Accessed October 31, 2018. https://www.vox.com/2018/8/17/17699170/aretha-franklin-2018-respect-song-otis-redding-feminism-civil-rights.

[9] Stracqualursi, Veronica. 2018. John Lewis: Aretha Franklin ‘inspired us all’ during civil rights movement. August 16. Accessed October 31, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/16/politics/john-lewis-aretha-franklin-cnntv/.

[10] Sisario, Ben. 2018. How Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ Became a Battle Cry for Musicians Seeking Royalties. August 17. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/17/arts/aretha-franklin-respect-copyright.html.

[11] U.S Copyright Office. 2018. Classics Protection and Access Act. October 31. Accessed October 31, 2018. https://www.copyright.gov/music-modernization/pre1972-soundrecordings/index.html.

[12] Mitchell, Gail, and Melinda Newman. 2018. How Aretha Franklin Took Care of Business (And Where Her Estate Stands Now). August 23. Accessed October 30, 2018. https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/8471888/aretha-franklin-business-estate.

[13] Associated Press in Detroit. 2018. Aretha Franklin died without a will. Septmeber 2. Accessed October 2, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/sep/02/aretha-franklin-died-without-a-will.

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