With a voice like a force of nature, undeniable swagger onstage and a decades-spanning career that encompassed multiple musical genres, Aretha Franklin indisputably lived up to the honorific she earned as a young artist: the Queen of Soul.
Few musical performers have been as widely revered as Franklin, who died on Thursday of advanced pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. The depth of her talent, her professionalism and her dedication to music were just some of what made her shine, according to Canadians artists mourning her passing.
“Aretha Franklin was not just a feat of nature in terms of her vocal prowess and flexibility and agility, but she had real musicianship, real power, when it came to deciding what musical direction a piece would take,” singer Measha Brueggergosman said in Halifax.
Raised in a household filled with music and activism, Franklin was a piano-playing, gospel-singing prodigy who went pro before she outgrew her teen years. A fully confident performer by her mid-20s, she thoroughly re-envisioned and transformed an already successful tune by Otis Redding — Respect — into a empowering anthem that catapulted her to international stardom and became her signature tune.
‘The gift is just the beginning’
“Being supremely gifted by God does not mean that there won’t be a lot of hard work involved. I think if anything, what I’ve learned from Aretha is that the gift is just the beginning. With how much respect you treat your gift depends how far you’ll go with it,” Brueggergosman noted.
Franklin earned the soul in her voice through a life of emotional upheavals. Her mother passed away when she was 10. She had two sons before her 16th birthday, married for the first time at 19 and had two more sons before she turned 30. Love affairs came and went. Her influential father was shot and remained in a coma for years before he died.
And yet Franklin’s career went from strength to strength. She was an indomitable artist who, despite personal difficulties, delivered engaging performances for more than a half-century.
“She was an unbelievable artist, who inspired me and millions of others. She was the most soulful and inspirational singer of our time… there will never be anyone like her,” Céline Dion declared in a Facebook post.
The Queen of Soul certainly wasn’t shy about clapping back at slights, whether real or perceived. There was her five-decade rivalry with Dionne Warwick, which started about whose version of I Say a Little Prayer for You was the superior rendition, and more recently included Warwick’s criticism of Franklin’s non-attendance of Whitney Houston’s funeral (not to miss out on having the last word, Franklin issued an official fax stating that Warwick’s claim she was Whitney Houston’s godmother was “libellous.”).
More recently, even Beyoncé got in the Queen of Soul’s crosshairs, when she called Tina Turner “the queen” during a Grammy introduction, a title Franklin believed was solely reserved for her.
But Toronto jazz artist Jordan John says Franklin was gracious enough to extend respect to younger musicians, like himself, who idolized her.
When he opened for Franklin in 2011, in addition to granting him time for an encore – something not often extended to an up-and-comer by someone of Aretha’s renown, John said. She also assembled her band to greet him and his crew offstage.
“She had her entire band line up beside the stage to shake our hands… which is quite a gesture of respect and appreciation,” he recalled, describing the gig as a career highlight.
Being ‘in the presence of greatness’
“That really means something to anyone who is in the presence of greatness such as Aretha and her world class band.”
As she moved from the gospel she first sang in her father’s church to jazz standards, rhythm and blues and eventually pop (with stops for show tunes and even opera along the way), Franklin put her stamp on hundreds of songs — some of which she wrote and others she indelibly marked with her gift of interpretation.[embedded content]
“When you sing another person’s words, you have to get into the experience. It is about telling the truth of the song,” said Canadian singer Jully Black.
Whether Franklin was singing, say, Natural Woman by Carole King or Burt Bacharach’s Say a Little Prayer, her delivery convinced you that while she may not have penned the words, you nonetheless felt the force of her conviction, Black said.
“That’s why we believe the stories that she sang,” said the Toronto performer, whose own hits include the popular 2007 revamp of the Etta James track Seven Day Fool.
“You have to be courageous enough to be vulnerable, to put yourself into the song completely.”
A new generation of fans
Franklin’s unapologetic dedication to great songs of all stripes helped carry her across genres and into new collaborations over the decades. In the 1980s, when many of her earlier contemporaries had faded from the limelight, she stepped back onto centre stage with a fresh pop sound and duets with artists like George Michael and Annie Lennox. By the 1990s, a whole new generation of fans became riveted by her live performances.
More recently, the woman who was always interested in what young people were listening to scored another career high. In 2014, Franklin released an album of covers by “divas” and led by her take on Adele’s banger Rolling in the Deep. That single made her the first woman to have 100 songs reach Billboard’s Hot R&B charts.
“In every decade she managed to find a way into our hearts, a way to keep herself relevant. I’m sure it was not lost on her how much she could have been pigeon-holed to stay in her own lane, but that is not Aretha. Aretha isn’t staying in anybody’s lane,” Brueggergosman declared.
And though her final years were marred by health concerns and cancelled performances, in the end, Franklin seemed to depart on her own terms, added the Canadian soprano.
“Isn’t it just like the queen Aretha to give us time to adjust to losing her?” she said, in reference to news that came out days ago that Franklin was gravely ill, with notable visitors dropping in and celebrities paying tribute online.
Losing her is undoubtedly a significant blow, Brueggergosman said. “But just to be able to process it a bit and to be able to listen to recordings and honestly just really examine who she was as an artist, who she was as an influencer, who she was as an icon — it’s been a really tumultuous couple of days, but it’s been really incredible to just bask in the Queen of Soul.”
With files from Nigel Hunt