At the end of 2015, Aretha Franklin turned up at the 38th Annual Kennedy Centre Honors to surprise Carole King, one of the award recipients that year. King looked pleased to see her, expecting her to say a few words about her career perhaps.
Instead, you see Franklin, who died on 16 August, aged 76, sit down at the piano and it suddenly dawns on King that she might perform. Franklin starts playing and King’s jaw drops when she hears the opening line: “Looking out on the morning rain….”
The camera pans to President Obama, who wipes away a tear. “Before the day I met you, life was so unkind…” Every note of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, which was written by King, is executed with precision, sonic finesse and soul. You can sense the room is heavy with emotion, triggered by one of the greatest singers of all time (the greatest according to Rolling Stone), delivering a song that hasn’t aged in half a century.
Decades earlier, in 1971, Franklin performed a set at the Fillmore West in San Francisco at the peak of her career. “Respect” is particularly exhilarating to watch or listen to. It’s faster than the studio recording, sped up by Franklin and her band to a frenetic pace, as if the whole thing could veer off the tracks at any moment. Franklin performs with confidence, wit, fervour, and the cheek that flipped Otis Redding’s comparably plodding original (1965) into an iconic anthem for the women’s and civil rights movements and launched Franklin herself into superstardom. “It [reflected] the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher – everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement,” wrote Franklin.
For me, these videos are a surefire shortcut to goosebumps and so they were the videos I looked up when I heard she was seriously ill. Like many, across the decades, I heard her voice for the first time as a child, found an old song on a new compilation, and have listened to her in every life stage since. But what is it about Aretha’s voice that makes us feel so much? What was it, exactly, that made Obama cry? When, in trying to describe Franklin’s soul in an interview, Whitney Houston touched her heart, what did that actually mean?
Simply speaking, her ability to convey emotion was extraordinary. Somehow, she made people feel what she was singing. “If I can wrap myself up in that song, and when that song gets to be a part of me, and affects me emotionally, then the emotions that I go through, chances are I’ll be able to communicate to you,” she said. “Make the people out there become a part of the life of this song that you’re singing about. That’s soul when you can do that.”
Partly, this was her mastery of dynamics. She could do both raw, gentle vulnerability and belting it out, with different shades of tone and resonance in between. The verses of “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”, for example, are delivered with a soft but fierce plea before she unleashes her vocal power to full effect in the chorus (“Hey mister! Don’t play it no more’). Sometimes she would alter the resonance of one particular syllable, sound or word, swiftly softening a note, or releasing it, with complete control of her throat, lungs, airways and muscles. She was a physical singer who induced a physical reaction: tears, dancing, chills, a firework of dopamine through the brain.
One of her vocal techniques was the gospel squall, where she’d deliver a kind of sung scream with intense passion and energy that might be even slightly off tone. Another trademark vocal tic was her use of melisma, or gospel or church runs, where she’d dance around a note or a syllable, pushing it to the point of perfection, playing with it until it said what she needed it to say.
Her tempo and phrasing were idiosyncratic. Think of the slight swing and pause mid-line in “I didn’t know, just what was wrong with me” in “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman”. Or the angry put-down of “You’re no good” before the mournful, whispered “heartbreaker” on “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”. These elements combined to make her a uniquely gifted story-teller.
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Growing up in the gospel tradition was key to her craft. She started singing in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father would give famously emotional and dramatic sermons. The first album she cut was Songs of Faith, recorded at the church in 1956 when she was 14. Gospel music underpins her delivery: the theatre, the pain, the climax, the agony and the ecstasy.
In a New York Times review from 1987, a critic described how she used her voice: “The very notion of a slow, teasing buildup to a delirious climax, the incessant repetition of textual and musical phrases, the flatted notes and the shivering ornamentation, the joyful choral responses – all these are integral to black gospel singing.” Building up and pulling back; hurrying and slowing down and then, erupting, in order to excite the audience.
Franklin’s four-octave range was impressive but what made it especially unique was the quality of both her high notes and extensive lower register. She was able to use vibrato across her range, which some experts attribute to what’s called an upper extension, or a mixture of using chest and head voice, which she employed for timbre or colouration.
We can examine her vocal techniques, her remarkable piano-playing, her songwriting, the funny, shade-throwing interviews but, also, there is something mysterious and transcendent about Franklin’s music – indeed, about soul in general – that’s hard to dissect or pin down.
In one of her last interviews, for Vogue in 2016, she was asked why her performance at the Kennedy Centre was such a sensation. She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer, and turned the question back to the journalist, despite repeated attempts. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why her voice was so compelling: it thrills and connects across the ages but its mechanism is ultimately beyond words. One thing is sure: Franklin will always be the Queen of Soul, yesterday, today and forever.
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