I’m quite sure there’s not a soul who needs me to try to describe the greatness of The Queen of Soul. Aretha Franklin was one of those artists that’s just universally accepted as magnificent, and deservedly so. Like the Mona Lisa, Aretha’s grandeur had long ago ceased to even be something to assert, her artistry and majesty being so indisputable. When she died, exactly one year ago today, her career was hailed by all – again, entirely properly in my estimation – as one of the most successful, influential and beloved in the history of popular music.
In addition to her incredibly long catalog of classic songs, and equally lengthy list of awards, one other thing that seemingly every retrospective cited was what would undoubtedly have to be considered her signature song, the 1967 global blockbuster, ‘Respect’ (Rolling Stone has it as #5 on their list of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time’). What I was continually astounded by, however, is that few if any reflections, at least those that I recall seeing, thought it worth noting that ‘Respect’ was not actually her song! No dis-R-E-S-P-E-C-T intended.
As I think most people know, ‘Respect’ was both written and first recorded two years earlier in 1965 by the legendary Otis Redding, for whom it was a significant hit, though this is not for a moment to dispute that Aretha’s version immediately supplanted it as the definitive adaptation (while leaving the lyrics largely intact, Franklin’s take also completely inverted the meaning and story of Redding’s song). Given this incontrovertible though perhaps inconvenient fact, I just thought that Otis deserved to at least be a part of the Aretha tributes. The failure to do so was like solely calling out Jimi Hendrix for ‘All Along The Watchtower,’¹ Joe Cocker for ‘With A Little Help From My Friends,’² or The Who for ‘My Generation.’³
I could never tire of hearing ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),’ ‘Chain Of Fools,’ ‘Think,’ ‘Spanish Harlem,’ ‘Rock Steady,’ ‘I Say A Little Prayer,’ ‘Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),’ ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,’ ‘Dr. Feelgood,’ and hell yeah, even ‘Freeway Of Love’ and ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who.’ And Aretha’s mesmerizing rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the 1998 Grammy’s – filling in at the last minute for Luciano Pavarotti, who canceled his appearance after the show had already begun – will forever be remembered as one of the music world’s most spellbinding live performances ever. But perhaps my favorite Aretha recording, especially given an obsession with the blues, was my late discovery of her 1980 album, “Aretha Sings The Blues,” which was actually a compilation of 14 previously released songs from among six albums she’d made throughout her early 1960’s tenure with Columbia Records. Man, what an incredible album! Lord have mercy, let there be absolutely no doubt that a baptist girl brought up on gospel to become The Queen of Soul can most definitely sing the blues. And for that, among many other things, she has my undying respect.
¹a Bob Dylan original, of course
²the Beatles’ classic, naturally
(Aretha recorded this song on her very first album, at the age of 18)