Franklin photographed in January 1961 for her first promotional shoot, after she had signed to Columbia Records.
Franklin photographed in January 1961 for her first promotional shoot, after she had signed to Columbia Records.
Hank Parker/Sony Music Archives

The Role of Struggle In Aretha Franklin's Path to Greatness

(Cause) Freedom
(Stands For) Freedom
(Oh) Freedom
(Yeah) Freedom!

It’s one word, really, repeated four times with interjections, echoed by a choir of women. But oh, how Aretha Franklin sang the bejesus out of the bridge to her 1968 hit “Think.” She built the stairway to the song’s climactic crescendo step-by-step. The first “freedom” is a statement, a tonic note, posed. The Queen of Soul takes the delivery up a notch on the second “freedom,” raising the scale and the stakes. She pitches a half step up on the third line, holding the note perilously, like a proposition or a promise. And then she lets that great big voice of hers loose, returning to the tonic but lifted an octave higher. That fourth “freedom” is a shout, a declaration, a testimonial, an exaltation. It’s everything that needs to be said, the word made an exclamation point in a way that only a woman born into the church and nursed by gospel could deliver it. “FREEDOM!”

And then she repeats the whole thing one more time, for good measure.

Contextually, this proclamation is a bit of a non sequitur -- an abstract step away from the command tense of the rest of the song, in which Franklin tells her man what he needs to do to keep their relationship together: namely, “think.” “Think” has rightly been interpreted as one of the artist’s definitive feminist anthems. Ironically, her husband and manager Ted White, whom she later accused of abuse, is credited as a co-writer, but the singer’s sister Carolyn has said the song was all hers. It proffers a powerful idea, a moral philosophy that Aretha might have learned from one of her father’s legendary sermons: In the act of consciously and conscientiously loving one another, people attain the transcendent state of freedom.

Realistically, the singer might also have been contemplating not the bliss of a healed union but liberation from a bad relationship -- the path her own life would take. Franklin’s music profoundly touched and changed the world, because over and over it offered that bridge to salvation, to freedom -- laid, as she also sang in one of her most famous covers, over troubled waters.

To say that Franklin was one of the greatest female singers of all time is to miss the point. Aretha -- an original one-named diva -- was one of the greatest artists, period. Her talent and her impact transcended gender, race, genre and geography. This was a woman who could sing disco, gospel, rock, opera and, of course, soul. In addition to possessing astonishing vocal talent, she was a pianist, songwriter, arranger and performer. She was one of the towering figures whose talents expressed the seismic cultural shifts of a decade of momentous change. The only peer of similar import and impact is Bob Dylan, and I would argue that as the voice of the struggle for equal rights for blacks and for women, Franklin embodied her generation more. Her death on Aug. 16 marks a mighty loss.

Freedom was the aim and the refrain of Franklin’s 76 years on Earth. She was born into an intellectual family in Memphis. Her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, became a sort of rock star among ministers, drawing thousands to his sermons not by preaching fire and brimstone, but by equating religious salvation with moral, earthly struggle. His progressive vision and powerful, musical delivery made him a leader of the civil rights movement, a close confidant of, among others, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Aretha began singing at age 10 in her daddy’s Detroit church; by 12, she was touring the country with him and recording her first album, a collection of gospel songs. She signed her first record deal in 1960 with legendary producer John Hammond’s Columbia Records.

Much has been written about the difficulties of the musician’s personal life, particularly her early years. Her parents split when she was 6, and her mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, a nurse who also sang and played piano, died when she was 9. By age 14, she had given birth to two boys by different fathers, whom she never identified. Motherless herself, she was a teenage single parent with a burgeoning career. Her own relationships also ended in divorce, and even violence. In 1979, burglars shot her father; he died from the wounds five years later. Through much of her life, Franklin struggled to present the svelte image of beauty demanded of pop stars. Afraid to fly, she performed rarely in her later years. During the last decade, she repeatedly canceled shows for undisclosed health reasons. We now know she was fighting pancreatic cancer.

Aretha refused to address, let alone dwell on, her personal troubles. In fact, the co-writer of her autobiography, David Ritz, wrote a second, unauthorized book in an effort to tell her real story. At a time when people post intimate details of their lives publicly, Franklin’s insistence on privacy can seem refreshing -- a statement, even. Her troubles were worth noting only because, as the classic spiritual says, she overcame them. After all, we heard everything we needed to know about the lived intensity of her feelings in her voice. “She transformed her extreme pain to extreme beauty,” her sister Erma Franklin told Ritz.

Columbia released 11 Franklin albums, but it wasn't until she moved to Atlantic Records in 1967 that she became a household name. It was then, under the guidance of producer Jerry Wexler and arranger Arif Mardin, that she truly figured out how to interlace an astute sense of rhythm with her multivocal range and gospel-trained emotive force. You don’t want to just belt along to Aretha’s songs; you want to dance. The statistics -- 73 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, including 17 top 10s, in a career that spanned six decades -- provide evidence of her significance. So do the awards: youngest person at the time to be honored by the Kennedy Center, first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 18 Grammys. But the facts can’t convey the momentousness of her work. Franklin recordings like “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Rock Steady” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” are the kinds of songs that change us, that we remember our whole lives, that we hold on to as talismans, that remind ourselves of what it is to be human.

And just when you thought Aretha’s time had passed, she took her artistry to new levels and audiences. “Think” found a second life in the speeded-up version she performed in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers in the role of a finger-wagging, hip-shaking waitress. That year, she found a new recording home, Arista Records, which placed her back on top of the charts with “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” and “Freeway of Love,” a delightfully naughty romp in which the 43-year-old singer celebrates her “pink Cadillac.” In the video, Franklin, sporting the kind of new wave pompadour that Bruno Mars and Janelle Monáe have repopularized, is backed by several female musicians. For decades, Franklin had spoken the hearts and minds of women with songs such as “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” her 1985 duet with Annie Lennox, was as explicitly feminist as a pop song could get.

Franklin’s lifelong quest for freedom was intrinsically connected to the quest of black people. She provided financial support to Dr. King and remained tied to the black church throughout her life. In 2009, she reached the mountaintop when she sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at Barack Obama’s inauguration. Six years later, the president cried as he watched her sing “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center tribute to Carole King (the song’s co-composer). That performance once again demonstrated that not only was Aretha Franklin the pre-eminent musical artist of the last half-century, but she was not going to go softly into that good night. Sitting majestically in a full-length fur coat, she strokes the grand-piano keyboard with consummate authority, then sends King into paroxysms of pleasure -- and Obama into tears -- as she sounds those deep notes. By the song’s end, as the crowd, clapping, comes to its feet, she has dropped the coat and stands in a Bessie Smith-esque beaded shift, arms open, voice soaring, from head to toe the Queen of Soul.

Long live the queen.

Evelyn McDonnell is an associate professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University. Her books include the forthcoming anthology Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl (Black Dog & Leventhal).



DISTINCTIONS BY THE DOZENS

20 No. 1s

Franklin scored a record 20 No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, beginning with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” in 1967, through “Freeway of Love” in 1985. Only Stevie Wonder has matched that number in the chart’s nearly 60-year existence.

37 Years

Nearly four decades elapsed between her first and last hits on the Billboard Hot 100: “Won’t Be Long,” with The Roy Bryant Combo, in 1961, and “Here We Go Again” in 1998.

74 Weeks

She held the No. 1 spot on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums longer than any other woman: 74 weeks. And the three albums with the most weeks at No. 1 among female artists are all hers: Aretha Now (1968) finishes first with 17 weeks, while the same year’s Aretha: Lady Soul posted 16 weeks. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967) dominated for 14 weeks.

100 Hits

Franklin charted an even 100 titles on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, an all-time record among women. Break it down virtually any way you want and she still comes out on top, with the most No. 1s (20), top 10s (52) and top 40 hits (81).

-- TREVOR ANDERSON 

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of Billboard.

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