ELYSIAN Honors the Life of Aretha Franklin
On August 16, 2018, Aretha Franklin departed this world at the age of 76. The rousing vocalist with a God-given four octave range will never be forgotten, nor will her impact ever be replicated. In her 61-year career, she garnered 18 Grammys and recorded 75 hit records, so it is no wonder that Rolling Stone named her the greatest singer of all time. She sang at three presidential inaugurations, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 for her contributions to American culture. But it is important to remember that she was more than a singer. She was a woman of integrity, an activist, who broke down barriers based on race and gender, and held tight to her values in the face of grave opposition. Her glorious voice rang out at the funerals of Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King and Whitney Houston. The question is, who is worthy to sing in memory of her? Elysian remembers seven iconic moments in the life of Aretha Franklin:
Recording “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1967
In 1967, a 25-year old singer named Aretha showed up in the small town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama looking to cut a song. Thus far in her career, she had released 9 records, but none of them adequately showcased her firepower. Within a few hours, Aretha and the white Southern boys who played music on all the Muscle Shoals recordings had created an anthem that became the blueprint for Aretha Franklin’s sound and cemented her place as the Queen of Soul.
Her support of Angela Davis in 1970
Aretha Franklin’s father was a minister who believed in social engagement as a means to combat society’s ills. He helped organize Civil Rights demonstrations with Rev. Martin Luther King during the late 1960s while his daughter’s star was on the rise. In 1967, when Aretha’s string of hit records made her a household name, she generously used earnings to support the work of Civil Rights activists, and hosted fundraisers at her home on a number of occasions. In 1970, when author and activist Angela Davis was jailed on suspicion of subversive acts, Franklin vowed to pay her bail “whether it was $100,000 or $250,000.” As a news article quoted Franklin at the time, “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace.”
Blues Brother Movie in 1980
It was Aretha Franklin’s first performance as an actress (her second was in Blues Brothers 2000), and she plays a restaurant owner whose man is a short order cook. Despite her rousing rendition of “Think,” he runs off to play guitar on tour with the Blues Brothers. But no one really worries about “Guitar” Murphy because Aretha stole the scene, hands down.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction in 1987
When the inaugural roster of honorees were named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, there was not a single woman among them. But Aretha Franklin didn’t have to wait long to get her R-E-S-P-E-C-T. On January 3, 1987, she joined Marvin Gaye and B.B. King on the roster of honorees for the second annual Hall of Fame induction. Although she did not attend the ceremony in person, she had legendary record exec Clive David read her statement: “To be the first woman inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a historical moment and indeed a milestone in my career…With many thanks and appreciation, I proudly take my place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005
It is the highest civilian honor an American can receive. For a woman who lived through Jim Crow and stipulated in her performance contracts in the 1960s that she would not sing for segregated audiences, a Medal of Freedom from the president of the United States of America takes on a profound resonance.
Obama Inauguration in 2009
Moments before The United States of America inaugurated its first black president, Aretha Franklin hit the stage to sing “My Country ‘Tis of ‘Thee.” Her voice on the “let freedom ring” refrain says everything.
Kennedy Center Honors performance in 2015
She came out on stage in a beige mink coat, sat down at the piano, and from the opening chords of “Natural Woman,” there was not a dry eye in the house. Among those in the audience crying tears of joy were Barack and Michelle Obama, and Carole King, who co-wrote the tune which was a mega-hit for Franklin in 1967. Mid-song, while improvising over the refrain, Franklin jumped up from the piano, and discarded her massive fur in the middle of the stage, all without missing a beat.