Hers was a garlanded life, full of accomplishments and enormous deeds that will distinguish her as a major figure, not only in entertainment but in world affairs.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama — an act that inspired America’s civil rights movement. Aretha Franklin was 13 at the time of Parks’ historic act. She was singing in a gospel choir organized by her father in Detroit that toured around the country. Such was her prodigious talent that she actually released an album called The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin in 1956. It marked the start of a recording career of gigantic proportions, in which the influences of the likes of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith loomed large. But the influence of Rosa Parks was also ever-present.
Franklin left the gospel choir aged 18 and moved to New York City, where she sang in clubs and released records, though without much commercial success. About 500 miles away, Detroit, the city she’d left, was becoming the center of gravity for black music. Berry Gordy, the mastermind behind Motown, had discovered the magic formula for the “crossover” — achieving success in a different field of or market for popular music. Gordy’s aim was to hasten his artists into the more lucrative white market. African-American artists had struggled in front of segregated audiences, had their music played on principally black radio stations and had their records released on labels that specialized in what used to be called “race music,” intended for black consumers only.
White artists habitually plundered their catalogues, recorded their songs and became successful. The term we used today is cultural appropriation. “Hound Dog,” for example, is a rock ‘n’ roll classic typically associated with Elvis Presley, who had an international hit record with it in 1956. The original was actually recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton three years earlier and released on a minor label.
Gordy’s roster was predominantly black (Neil Young was his sole white artist), but he had managed to interest white audiences, particularly British ones, in the unique sound his composers and arrangers in the “motor city” Detroit produced. For a while it seemed Franklin was out of touch with what was called, in the 1960s, soul music (it still is, of course). Motown’s hegemony was rivaled by two labels: Atlantic, in New York, which had Ray Charles among its artists, and Stax, in Memphis, which had Otis Redding.
Feminism and Civil Rights
In 1966, Franklin was offered the chance to record on Atlantic. But there was a condition: principally a middle-of-the-road singer with a repertoire that included show songs and ballads, she was told to return to her gospel sound in an attempt to sound rawer. Soul music was marketed as authentic black music. Setting aside discussions about authenticity, the market — that is, the white market — wanted a sound that was believably black. It may sound crass and manipulative today, but in the 1960s, “black” was a marketing instrument, so black music was sellable.
Franklin’s Atlantic record “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” was a success, but it was her version of a tune recorded earlier and with some commercial success by Redding that established her. “Respect” was released serendipitously in 1967, a year when a tumultuous two-year period of African American unrest culminated in, of all places, Detroit. Popularly labeled a “race riot,” the disturbances in Detroit were a continuation of a sequence of bloody outbreaks of violence that had started in Watts, in Los Angeles. In Detroit alone 43 people were killed and 342 injured over two days. The incident was the subject of a recent film, Detroit.
The civil rights movement that had started following Rosa Parks’ protest was still strong, but racist segregation held firm. Civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 had ended what Americans called de jure (legal) discrimination, but de facto – real life – discrimination remained. In Detroit, whites fled the inner cities, leaving behind mainly black neighborhoods, called ghettos, where housing quality was poor. Inner city education was underfunded and, perhaps, most pertinently and enduringly, police harassment of black people continued.
One can imagine the resonance of Franklin’s lyric: “I get tired/Keep on trying/You’re running out of fools and I ain’t lying.” Ostensibly a love song, the demand for R.E.S.P.E.C.T. had any number of interpretations, one of which was a plaintive ultimatum from blacks. Either give African-Americans the dignity, esteem and appreciation they deserve, or face a riotous future. Redding had written the original and though his thunderous version was well received, it never captured the popular imagination as Franklin’s did. The reason is probably simple: It was released in 1964, a year before the Watts outbreak.
Being a woman, Franklin could appear to be challenging at another level. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 and had stirred a discourse on the position of women that continues to the present day. In 1966, Friedan co-founded National Organization for Women. Women’s liberation, as it was known in the 1960s, was building impetus, and Franklin’s words reverberated. With a single record, she became emblematic of both civil rights and feminism.
Often overlooked is Franklin’s other redoubtable record of the period. She wrote “Think” and probably intended its words to speak for her generation and encourage integration: “You need me and I need you/Without each other there ain’t nothing people can do.”
After the 1960s, Franklin matured into a grande dame. In the 1970s, disco made her sound seem rusty and, by 1981, when Ronald Reagan was first elected president, her words and music seemed as if from a bygone era. She kept the sobriquet “Queen of Soul,” but soul music was of little relevance in the 21st century — though, of course, it still has its aficionados. Over the past couple of decades, Franklin continued to work, even as a septuagenarian. Her appearances in recent years had been sparing, but spectacular: She sang at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama — a reminder that she and her music held a timeless quality.
She was a Kennedy Center Honors Awards recipient and received the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was the first woman inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987. Hers was a garlanded life, full of accomplishments and enormous deeds that will distinguish her as a major figure, not only in entertainment but in world affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.