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.