All Hail Aretha Franklin, ‘The Queen of Soul’

We asked experts from coast to coast to weigh in on what Aretha Franklin means to Detroit and to the world.

Aretha. The very name elicits smiles, joy and excitement. Yes, she is our queen, but she is so much more. Franklin’s music has left an indelible imprint on the very fabric of American music and culture. Her list of accomplishments is vast and unparalleled. Franklin was the first female artist inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Really, who could have come before her? Through much of her career, she ruled the charts with 20 number one R&B singles, and ten number one R&B albums-more than any other female artist, and 45 of her singles have appeared on the Billboard Top 40 list, 14 of which sold a million copies-again, more than any other female artist. She's won 18 competitive Grammy Awards and two honorary Grammies to date. Rolling Stone magazine ranked her at the top of their list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. Franklin’s voice has blessed the inaugurations of two U.S. presidents: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. 

Since the early 1960s, her music has played an integral role in our lives, woven into our memories and emotions. How do you measure the significance of a mother singing an Aretha Franklin song to her child or put into words the joy of dancing to one of her ballads at your wedding? Aretha is one of us, a Detroiter, but truth is, our Aunt Ree Ree belongs to the world. BLAC polled a panel of experts-scholars, critics, music industry professionals and artists-in an effort to gain some perspective on Franklin’s impact. We found that even for these great minds, it is difficult to articulate just how deeply the queen permeates our cultural DNA. Their comments and stories are often personal and emotional. Each of them agrees that she is worthy of all the praise we can muster.

TERRY BELLO, President, E1 Entertainment Group and Founder and Senior Executive Producer of the International Soul Music Summit – Atlanta

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Aretha Franklin-from my parents’ generation, to my generation to one day my kids’ generation-set the bar for singers in general, not just female singers. But when you look at female vocalists today, there are not five young ladies who can even touch Aretha Franklin. From that Motown soul to that Detroit grind, she is just the essence of a beautiful voice and a beautiful lady, someone who is just timeless. When she sang at the inauguration of Barack Obama a couple of years ago, you felt like urban music had arrived. You know her from the song “Respect,” but Aretha Franklin is a diva, she’s an icon, she’s history.

Honestly, when you think of Prince, Michael, Marvin – we don’t always throw a lot of women in there – but you’ve gotta throw Ms. Franklin in there, and she didn’t just have black hits, she had crossover hits. She’s an international celebrity. Her body of work is timeless. God forbid, when it’s her time (to go), her music will stand the test of time. I talk to artists all the time, and I think as artists you want to have a body of work like that. I mean some people are lucky to have one or two songs; Aretha Franklin has countless hits. You can’t say Aretha Franklin’s name and not get excited. And sometimes I think the young female singers don’t really study her body of work, but that lady was ahead of her time.

We have the Billie Holidays and Lena Hornes, but Aretha carried the torch and took it to another level. We just honored Anita Baker at the Soul Train Music Awards, but when you think of Anita Baker, you can’t help but think of Aretha Franklin and the Detroit roots. Some people are living legends and icons – Aretha is both. She’s Aunt Ree Ree, as we call her. If you have southern roots, Aretha reminds you of somebody in your family. I think it’s important for the music community and the African American community that we support each other and pay our homage now, and not take people like her for granted. You can learn from her body of work. You can study her and learn something from her, and it will help you become a better singer, artist or just )gain a better appreciation for music).

My favorite Aretha song? Wow! I don’t wanna be like everybody else, and say “Respect" or “Ain’t Nobody." She has countless, but I think that’s the one where she’s singing from that old, back room, smoke room – just singing from the gut of her belly.

GREG TATE, Author, Journalist, Cultural Critic and Musician – New York City

Aretha is such a singular figure in our music, one whose impact has been political, spiritual and musical, as deeply in those regards as Nina Simone, James Brown and John Coltrane. It’s hard to think of another singer as versatile and virtuosic as she. The impeccable quality of her work across genres is unprecedented and kind of scary: gospel, jazz, soul, blues, pop (and) opera. She's undaunted by the challenge of any musical idiom or material and always makes it her unmistakable own. The album I keep coming back to is Spirit in the Dark – easily one of my top ten desert-island discs of all time. More than any of the others, it’s such a definitive and intimate portrait of her as a consummate storyteller. On the title track, especially, she drops any pretense of a divide between her erotic and her evangelical powers. Every time she sings the link between secular soul and religious gospel gets reforged and reanimated.

BOB DAVIS, Publisher of Soul-Patrol.com – Mount Holly, New Jersey

Musically – despite attempts by the mainstream media to pigeonhole Aretha's music using the moniker "Queen of Soul" – Aretha Franklin – much like Jimi Hendrix – is truly a universal fusion artist. Both her singing and keyboard playing reflect the seemingly impossible to attain sweet spot between jazz, blues, R&B, gospel and more. As such, she is a revolutionary artist who has gone about making fundamental changes to the way that millions of people have absorbed music, in a very quiet manner.

MICHAEL AWKWARD, University of Michigan Professor of Afro-American Literature and Culture – Ann Arbor

Aretha’s classic Atlantic catalogue displays her unparalleled versatility as a singer. She could move your feet – "Rock Steady" is about as funky a song as anyone besides James Brown ever recorded – and let you hear what heartbreak sounds and feels like in songs like the wonderful "Ain't No Way." She brought the funk, interpreted songs so impressively that you forgot the other voices that had been attached to them. She was perhaps the first church-trained R&B singer to show us that raising a joyful noise in honor of her love of God wasn't necessarily incompatible with chastising a do-wrong man or celebrating a do-right one.

More than anything else, because she dug so deeply into the depths of her soul when she sang, she compelled us to look more carefully at our own hearts and into our own heads. If she is the Queen of Heart and Soul – and there's no doubt that she is, and that no singer has or will come close to equaling her – we are her dutiful subjects, in awe of her genius, in pain in response to her pain and hoping we honor her as her contributions to our lives deserve. She is, quite simply, the most impactful singer of American popular music of the second half of the 20th century.

K'JON, Motown Recording Artist – Detroit

Just the title itself – when they call her "Queen" – speaks volumes. She is the first R&B diva in my book. When you think about the artists of today – the Beyonces, the Mary J. Bliges – she is still the biggest iconic female singer of all time. She paved the way for not just female singers but for everyone, males included. How strong she was when she was younger, her voice, it just speaks volumes as far as identifying her with soul, with R&B, with Motown, with Detroit.

My job is to carry the torch, so to speak. It’s a difficult task, but it’s an honor when we remember when Detroit had its day. Not saying that we don’t have people who are doing it now, but it’s a good feeling when you can talk about someone like Aretha Franklin being from Detroit. Even though Detroit has gone through some changes, you can’t sleep on what we were, and what we still have today. You can’t sleep on us.

ROSA CLEMENTE, 2008 Green Party Vice Presidential Candidate, Scholar, Journalist and Radio Host – New York City

Beyond being the Queen of Soul, I feel Aretha is a role model for black and brown female artists to also be proud to be black! Aretha has influenced so many women to be empowered and be themselves on stage. I think she is one of the few female artists to cross every racial, cultural, ethnic and gender barrier. I think Aretha should be thought of as any classical music artist would be. When I was growing up, my grandmother in Puerto Rico used to always have the Spanish version of “Respect” playing, but “Daydreaming” is my favorite Aretha song. It makes me feel like a 16-year-old teenage girl walking in the sun in the Bronx.

THORNETTA DAVIS, Singer, Songwriter and Recording Artist – Detroit

When she first came out performing, I was real young. I remember hearing her voice and knowing there was nobody out there that sounded like her. I wished I could sing like her when I was a little girl. My mom used to play her records; I grew up listening to all her love songs. My mom even had a recording of an old blues song that she sang, “Today I Sing The Blues.” I remember the emotion in her voice and how beautiful it was. I really don’t concentrate on how she impacted the country at all – she just has a beautiful voice. Everybody has felt whatever she sings about: love, life, loss, relationships, and she sings it with such emotion, people feel her. They can relate to her.

She actually came to one of my gigs. It was at the grand opening of the McNamara Terminal (Detroit Metropolitan Airport). I performed out there with the Sun Messengers, and she was sitting right up front. And I looked down and saw her in the audience, and I sort of panicked (laughs). I was getting ready to sing a song that I learned from her. It was not one of her originals, but it was “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,” and I learned it from her version. I didn’t know she was there until I started singing, and I looked down and she was looking up at me smiling. That’s my favorite Aretha moment.

SUZANNE E. SMITH, George Mason University Associate Professor in the Department of History and Art History, Author of Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit – Fairfax, Virginia

Aretha Franklin’s impact on American music has been so large that it really can’t be measured. The history of soul music in the 1960s cannot be told without discussing her towering presence. Specifically, her Atlantic recordings – “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Do Right Woman,” and “A Natural Woman” – are historically significant because her music spoke to both the black struggle for equality and the women’s rights movement.

She is also important in the history of American popular music because she was able to maintain her credibility as a gospel singer while also building a successful career in the popular music industry. Her ability to bridge these two worlds was a testament to her talents as a singer and to the respect she had developed in the gospel music world through her early career singing at the Baptist services of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. We should celebrate her now while she is still with us because she should be able to a enjoy all of the accolades she receives for her exceptional contribution to American culture.

My favorite Aretha Franklin performance is her appearance at President Barack Obama’s inauguration where she sang “My Country Tis’ of Thee.” Her presence at this historic event evoked the memory of Marian Anderson singing the same song on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 and tied that moment – which in many ways can be seen as the beginning of the modern civil rights movement – to its culmination in the election of the first African-American president. It was a very powerful moment of connection between two of the most important African-American women singers in modern American history.

CELIA FAUSSART, Afro-French Recording Artist of Les Nubians – New York City

(Aretha) is the first (soul artist) who started traveling (internationally) and spreading soul music into everybody’s hearts. She’s the most powerful with “Respect” and “Natural Woman," but my song is “Dr. Feelgood." That’s my favorite! One of her live albums was recorded the first time she came to Paris (Aretha in Paris). For the French audience back in the day, it was the first time they got to see a soul artist. Some of them would have heard soul music through vinyl, but this was the first time they got to see a soul artist and to feel the spirit live and direct, as we say. So she has that major important influence. Also as a strong artist and a strong woman, I’ll go back to “Respect." For women of many generations, it’s a fundamental of who we are. It’s one of the songs that helped us stand tall.

DANYEL SMITH, Billboard Editor-in-Chief – New York

(Aretha) has always been on the cutting edge of fashion and everything that it represents, whether she was a young girl directly out of the church – she was quite stylish and inspiring at that point in her life – or whether it was the '80s and “Pink Cadillac." And just recently at President Obama’s inauguration, her fashion statement was the most talked about – with her hat. She always stands out. She always makes an impact, even with the eccentricities that she is surely allowed at this point in her life, she always makes us proud.

I think we should celebrate each other now. As special as Aretha is, I think that’s one place she doesn’t stand out. I think we should all celebrate each other as we live and walk this earth. I think Aretha knows.

LEE BAILEY, Radio Personality and Founder of EURWeb – Los Angeles

When I think of Aretha Franklin, I think of a lady who helped America fall in love with black music, with soul music. That’s how I would best describe her impact on American music, or America, or the world, or world music, or music in general. I believe she’s one of the architects of it, something about that voice, the way she intones her whole being. Basically, when you hear her sing a melody or perform, it transcends and translates what’s on the page, on the sheet music, what’s in the groove and the whole nine yards. You have somebody from bus drivers to the president and past presidents of the United States all grooving to Aretha Franklin. It’s that kind of influence, when you think about it.

Who can you think of in the past 20, 30, 40 years who has not been influenced by Aretha Franklin? In particular, female singers, pop singers, maybe even country singers and gospel singers. I don’t know how you can get around being influenced by this woman if you’re a singer, female in particular, but even male singers. Her gifts were bestowed upon her by God. She’s got something that nobody else has. It’s just that simple.

DAVEY D, Hip-Hop Journalist, Historian, DJ and Activist – Oakland, California

Aretha Franklin is one of those greats. When you talk about landmark singers, who do you look up to? Who is one of the best? She’s in that top ten always. As a result, she’s going to be mimicked to the point where you don’t even realize she’s being mimicked until you do the homework. When people sing that way, that’s really inspired by Aretha Franklin. Some of her songs have become people’s soundtracks. There are so many songs that you can just look at and be like, “I grew up to that. My mama grew up to that. I did my first this, that and the third.” So she’s had that impact of just being a strong presence in many people’s lives, an iconic figure in the black community and just somebody who sets the standard for folks who wanna step up and become an artist. She’s one of the standard bearers. That alone sounds very simple, but really when you think about it, it’s pretty daunting. That’s a major thing. You don’t have a lot of people who can make that claim.

Of course, she’s always going to be respected (in hip-hop). She’s had songs that have been redone from the very beginning. I remember Roxanne Shanté doing her own version of “Respect.” You know, hip-hop is not limited to rapping. There’s been a lot of people who have sung and brought musicianship to it, so again, that’s where she becomes that standard. The last thing I would say about her, Aretha is not someone who you listen to – she’s somebody you feel. Aretha is soul music, and soul is an integral foundation to hip-hop.

GABRIELLE GOODMAN, Recording Artist and Berklee College of Music Professor of Voice – Boston

I think that (Aretha) is one of the greatest – if not the greatest – vocal innovators of all time. The only other artist who comes close to creating the wealth of work and innovation comparable to her is Chaka Khan, who was also inspired by Aretha. It is difficult to name just one favorite Aretha song, because there are many. But if I had to name only one, it would be "Respect." Although it was written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, Aretha gave it new meaning and a deeper gospel interpretation. Her version became popular when African-Americans and women were fighting for civil rights in this country. To that end, it has incredible significance as a protest song.

Musically speaking, "Respect" – like so many of the songs that Aretha has recorded – contains the amazing blend of gospel and R&B. It has all of the hallmarks of gospel like the shout, dominant seventh chords, and the background vocals and pentatonic riffs. These elements are prevalent in both the blues and gospel but "Respect" makes you want to get up and dance. Aretha is the female artist who is rightfully and historically credited with bringing gospel and R&B together. It is also noteworthy that even after all of the success that Aretha had as a secular artist, she continued to return to her roots in gospel music time and again.

In memory of Aretha Franklin, "Queen of Soul" – March 25, 1942 – Aug. 11, 2018

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