Aretha Franklin began singing commercially in 1960 at the tender age of eighteen, although it was another seven years before she would begin to achieve true commercial and critical success. She is still known today for her epic voice, which naturally accommodated the soul and R&B music for which she was known. Within three years of beginning to achieve success, she became known as the “Queen of Soul,” able to enunciate the emotions in her songs without resorting to gimmicky techniques such as an overabundance of melisma. Instead, she sang the songs as accurately as possible from a technical standpoint and simply let the enormity of her voice do the rest.
While Franklin had begun singing gospel at a young age, this was only partially responsible for her abilities. Through her gospel training, Aretha Franklin learned the basics of pitch and rhythm. The rest came as her voice matured, and she began releasing singles such as “Think” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” She also became known for the song “Respect,” which had originally been sung by Otis Redding. However, Franklin’s version was quite different from the version originally popularized by Redding.
The differences between Redding’s and Franklin’s versions of “Respect” was as thematic as they were musical. From a musical standpoint, Franklin’s version was unique for adding the chorus as well as the repetitions of her backup singers. From a thematic standpoint, Franklin’s version was different due to the sheer fact that it was sung by a woman. Redding had used the word “respect” as something of a euphemism, but Franklin used it more directly. Not only was she singing as a confident and dignified woman who demanded gender equality, but she was also singing around the time of the civil rights movement. It was no longer a simple sex song, but rather a call to action for those who felt they had suffered injustice.
Some think of Aretha Franklin as little more than a singer, but she was much more than that. When she wasn’t writing her own songs, she was picking and choosing which songs to cover. “Respect” had not simply been handed to her by a studio executive with all of the details worked out. She arranged the song using her own piano, and she entered the studio ready to perform it to her own standards.
Franklin did not just play the piano when working out her musical arrangements. She also accompanied herself on many of the songs she recorded. This gave her additional control over her songs, as she was able to manipulate the tempo to suit the style in which she wished to sing. This enabled her to further her career through her technical skills, although this aspect of Franklin’s talent is often overlooked by modern listeners who believe that her sole contribution to her songs is the voice for which she is so admired.
Aretha Franklin was not just a soul singer, but a true artist. While she became famous in the late 1960s, she has remained active. Her last Top 40 hit was Lauryn Hill’s “A Rose Is Still a Rose” in 1998, a song which Hill wrote specifically for Franklin. The song is highly feminist, and expresses the fragility that underlies even the most callous of scorned women. The same year that Franklin recorded the single, she was able to show off her operatic abilities when she stood in for Luciano Pavarotti at the Grammy Awards. Even more than thirty years after Aretha Franklin had become famous, she was able to show that she still had the same vocal power for which she has been known for decades.
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