The Revival and Hidden Treasure of Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, New York, October 14, 1968 (contact print). CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD AVEDON / © THE RICHARD AVEDON FOUNDATION
Aretha Franklin, New York, October 14, 1968 (contact print).
CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD AVEDON / © THE RICHARD AVEDON FOUNDATION

Late on a winter night, Aretha Franklin sat in the dressing room of Caesars Windsor Hotel and Casino, in Ontario. She did not wear the expression of someone who has just brought boundless joy to a few thousand souls.

“What was with the sound?” she said, in a tone somewhere between perplexity and irritation. Feedback had pierced a verse of “My Funny Valentine,” and before she sat down at the piano to play “Inseparable,” a tribute to the late Natalie Cole, she narrowed her gaze and called on a “Mr. Lowery” to fix the levels once and for all. Miss Franklin, as nearly everyone in her circle tends to call her, was distinctly, if politely, displeased. “For a time up there, I just couldn’t hear myself right,” she said.

On the counter in front of her, next to her makeup mirror and hairbrush, were small stacks of hundred-dollar bills. She collects on the spot or she does not sing. The cash goes into her handbag and the handbag either stays with her security team or goes out onstage and resides, within eyeshot, on the piano. “It’s the era she grew up in—she saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off,” a close friend, the television host and author Tavis Smiley, told me. “There is the sense in her very often that people are out to harm you. And she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her.”

Franklin has won eighteen Grammy awards, sold tens of millions of records, and is generally acknowledged to be the greatest singer in the history of postwar popular music. James Brown, Sam Cooke, Etta James, Otis Redding, Ray Charles: even they cannot match her power, her range from gospel to jazz, R. & B., and pop. At the 1998 Grammys, Luciano Pavarotti called in sick with a sore throat and Aretha, with twenty minutes’ notice, sang “Nessun dorma” for him. What distinguishes her is not merely the breadth of her catalogue or the cataract force of her vocal instrument; it’s her musical intelligence, her way of singing behind the beat, of spraying a wash of notes over a single word or syllable, of constructing, moment by moment, the emotional power of a three-minute song. “Respect” is as precise an artifact as a Ming vase.

“There are certain women singers who possess, beyond all the boundaries of our admiration for their art, an uncanny power to evoke our love,” Ralph Ellison wrote in a 1958 essay on Mahalia Jackson. “Indeed, we feel that if the idea of aristocracy is more than mere class conceit, then these surely are our natural queens.” In 1967, at the Regal Theatre, in Chicago, the d.j. Pervis Spann presided over a coronation in which he placed a crown on Franklin’s head and pronounced her the Queen of Soul.

The Queen does not rehearse the band—not for a casino gig in Windsor, Ontario. She leaves it to her longtime musical director, a seventy-nine-year-old former child actor and doo-wop singer named H. B. Barnum, to assemble her usual rhythm section and backup singers and pair them with some local union horn and string players, and run them through a three-hour scan of anything Franklin might choose to sing: the hits from the late sixties and early seventies—“Chain of Fools,” “Spirit in the Dark,” “Think”—along with more recent recordings. Sometimes, Franklin will switch things up and pull out a jazz tune—“Cherokee” or “Skylark”—but that is rare. Her greatest concern is husbanding her voice and her energies. When she wears a fur coat onstage, it’s partly to keep warm and prevent her voice from closing up. But it’s also because that’s what the old I’ve-earned-it-now-I’m-gonna-wear-it gospel stars often did: they wore the mink. Midway through her set, she makes what she calls a “false exit,” and slips backstage and lets the band noodle while she rests. “It’s a fifteen-round fight, and so she paces herself,” Barnum says. “Aretha is not thirty years old.” She is seventy-four.

Franklin doesn’t get around much anymore. For the past thirty-four years, she has refused to fly, which means that she hasn’t been able to perform in favorite haunts from the late sixties, like the Olympia, in Paris, or the Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam. When she does travel, it’s by bus. Not a Greyhound, exactly, but, still, it’s exhausting. A trip not long ago from her house, outside Detroit, to Los Angeles proved too much to contemplate again. “That one just wore me out,” she said. “It’s a nice bus, but it took days! ” She has attended anxious-flyer classes and said that she’s determined to get on a plane again soon. “I’m thinking about making the flight from Detroit to Chicago,” she said. “Baby steps.”

Even if the concert in Windsor was a shadow of her stage work a generation ago, there were intermittent moments of sublimity. Naturally, she has lost range and stamina, but she is miles better than Sinatra at a similar age. And she has survived longer than nearly any contemporary. In Windsor, she lagged for a while and then ripped up the B. B. King twelve-bar blues “Sweet Sixteen.” Performing “Chain of Fools,” a replica of the Reverend Elijah Fair’s gospel tune “Pains of Life,” she managed to make it just as greasy as when she recorded it, in 1968.

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Source: New Yorker | DAVID REMNICK