Let’s head back to the sixties. It’s a sunny Sunday morning in Detroit, Michigan, near the Canadian border. To be precise, we are at New Bethel Baptist Church on Linwood Street. It’s a warm day, and, as always, the church of Clarence LaVaughn Franklin is crowded with smiling faces in the mood for swingin’ hips accompanied by familiar Christian gospel, dancing, singing, and hand-flapping to get some “fresh” air. Of course, everyone is wearing their Sunday best.
After the explosion during the gospel hymn “Amazing Grace”, a young Aretha Franklin tries something different, something new, hallelujah! Freshly signed by Columbia records, she performs her first single “Won’t Be Long” in her father’s church, and everybody loves it.
Writing the title of this fantastic song is bittersweet; Aretha Franklin, one of the most memorable singers in history, has sadly passed away. It’s almost ironic to be speaking about the same church where, in December 1963, Aretha gave a stunning tribute to her idol Dinah Washington (whose funeral was conducted by Father Franklin), and realize this might be the same place where family and friends will say goodbye to their beloved Aretha, our Aretha Franklin, our Queen of Soul.
Unfortunately, Franklin was no stranger to health problems, she dealt with serious weight issues, alcoholism, and cancer, but she always stayed on the bright side of life. Her secret? Aretha was music, her focus was intense, Aretha was soul.
I can’t remember a musician who was as pure and honest in music as Aretha was. Although I never got the chance to see her live, I consider myself a fan. Reggae had Bob Marley, pop had Michael Jackson, and soul had this beautiful woman. The fact that Aretha hated flying made it difficult for her to perform in Europe, but those who had the chance to see her during her European tours in 1968 and 1977 Europe tours consider themselves blessed.
Hopefully, all North Americans have been to one of her concerts because our charming queen absolutely loved performing. Franklin was never too proud, she never backed down, at least as long the challenge didn’t include a flight. She was the first gospel singer with a major record hit, “Spirit in the Dark” (1970), received the American Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005), sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration (2009 – don’t forget her hat), gave an amazing tribute to 46 year younger Adele (2014), performed multiple times at the Super Bowl, and, above all, she won over millions and millions of hearts and minds.
Maybe in 50 years, our children’s children will ask how Aretha earned the title Queen of Soul. Our answer should be unanimous and clear: Aretha didn’t earn this honor, it was always hers. With her stunning voice, she was the personification of soul, the founding mother of soul. We say a little prayer for you, Aretha.