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Aretha Franklin, a Pop Star Who Could Make You See God

Remembering the Queen of Soul, who died Thursday at the age of 76

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“This is a song that a girl took away from me.” That’s Otis Redding onstage at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival introducing “Respect,” which he’d written and released just two years earlier, and which already no longer belonged to him. “Good friend of mine,” he adds through deep, wheezing breaths, as though he’d never quite recovered from his good friend knocking the wind right out of him. “This girl, she just took this song. But I’m still gonna do it anyway.”

Redding’s original version is, of course, fantastic, propulsive, and exuberant even in its pleading. But that pleading—“All I’m askin’ / Is for a little respect when I come home”—was maybe a little too bringing-home-the-bacon pedestrian. Where he’d been, and what he’d been up to exactly, was nowhere near as compelling as where the housebound woman patiently listening to him might’ve wanted to go.

Aretha Franklin, who died in her home in Detroit on Thursday at 76, went there. Her “Respect,” the leadoff track on 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, was an act of god every bit as holy as the gospel staples she’d grown up on. (She cut her debut album, 1956’s Songs of Faith, at 14 years old, right there in her father Reverend C.L. Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.) Compared with Redding’s live version, Aretha’s pace slows a little, but the swagger increases exponentially, with every striking new detail—from her booming “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” breakdown to the deft “Sock it to me” chant taken up by her sisters and backup singers, Carolyn and Erma Franklin—spawning its own vibrant universe. (“Sock it to me” was not a sex thing, Aretha was forever quick to point out.)

He made it a hot song; she made it the national anthem. Even a line as straightforward as “I’m about to give you / All my money,” a mere financial transaction from Redding’s perspective, takes on a profound existential quality when Franklin bellows it. “Even back then I had the sense that Aretha wasn’t just talking about dollar bills,” Diane McKinney-Whetstone wrote in her 2017 book Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul. “The money line was also a metaphor for a woman’s value.”

It’s likely that Aretha’s “Respect” was the first thing that jumped into your head Monday morning, when reports first surfaced that Franklin was “gravely ill.” Or maybe it was one of 50-plus other indisputable American classics, many of which likewise held her up as one of pop music’s earliest and most vital feminists, from “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” to the exquisitely delicate “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” to “Think,” a thrilling battle of the sexes that turns on an ascending and infectiously volcanic battle cry of “Freedom! / Freedom!! / Freedom!!! / Freedom!!!!”

“I don’t care what they say about Aretha.” That’s Billy Preston, quoted in Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, David Ritz’s profoundly unauthorized 2014 biography, denounced as “a book of trash” and “lies, lies, lies, and then more lies” by the Queen of Soul herself. Preston goes on to acknowledge some of that trash, but argue that it’s meaningless in the face of a talent so supernatural:

“She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear—that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked-up country has ever produced.”

“HEYYYYWHAHHAHAOOOWW!” That’s Jennifer Hudson, Christina Aguilera, Florence Welch, Yolanda Adams, and Martina McBride at the 2011 Grammys concluding their show-opening, 10-minute Aretha Franklin tribute with a fearsome five-woman wail-off. (Aguilera is so pumped afterward that she nearly topples over.) Reports had surfaced that Franklin was dealing with pancreatic cancer, which the famously guarded Queen would later vehemently deny, declaring her health problems “resolved.” But that colossal diva summit, goofy and joyous as it was, had the uneasy feel of a preemptive eulogy. We as a nation have been bracing ourselves to mourn this woman for years, if not decades. No quantity or quality of mass wailing will do her justice.

We all gotta try, though. Soundtrack your own mourning with whatever Aretha era speaks to you the clearest. Maybe it’s her early gospel and pre-pop, the dignified jazz-diva buoyancy of 1965’s Yeah!!! (“Though it may be just once in a lifetime / I’m gonna do great things”) or the total reverence of Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington the year before. Maybe—most likely—you gravitate toward her late-’60s-and-beyond run with Atlantic Records, those monster greatest-hits years that will still knock you flat as both singles and album-length statements. (I am partial to 1970’s dusky and subdued Spirit in the Dark, as magnificent an after-hours comedown as Sam Cooke’s Night Beat.) The more heartbroken she sounded, the more triumphant she became. And when she leaned back churchward, as she did on the nuclear coda to 1968’s “People Get Ready,” she was the only pop singer who could make you not only believe in god, but see god.

“I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows.” That’s Atlantic Records producer and corunner Jerry Wexler in his 1993 memoir, Rhythm and the Blues. “Her eyes are incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain. Her depression could be deep as the dark sea. I don’t pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.”

That sounds terminally florid when describing anyone else, but Franklin had both a joy and pathos that transcended eras, that inspired such unending devotion. Her bumptious 1985 Spandex-soul excursion Who’s Zoomin’ Who? generated unexpectedly big hits (“Freeway of Love”!), and 1998’s A Rose Is Still a Rose, aided songwriting-wise by the likes of Lauryn Hill and Sean Combs, proved she could hang with The Youth without pandering to them. Most recently, there was 2014’s campy Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, which kicks off with “At Last,” closes with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and peaks with, yes, “Rolling in the Deep.”

The press tour for that one was delightful, by the way. “OK! Great gowns, beautiful gowns.” That’s Aretha Franklin in a stupendous 2014 interview with the Wall Street Journal, asked to assess the vocal talents of one Taylor Swift. Most other divas, from Adele to Whitney Houston, earn some faint praise, though Franklin pointedly passes entirely on Nicki Minaj; also, she tut-tuts (“Oh, please”) as the WSJ guy explains Auto-Tune to her. Do not cross this lady is the subtext, but any casual Aretha fan had figured that out long ago—at least since 2008, when she pitched a fit after Beyoncé had the audacity to call Tina Turner “the queen” on stage at the Grammys.

“Aretha Franklin Is the Queen of Soul and Shade.” That’s the headline to a 2014 Gawker piece in which longtime Aretha scholar Rich Juzwiak summarized her various feuds and acts of aggression, as helpfully cataloged in Ritz’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin that same year. Ritz had collaborated with Franklin on her heavily sanitized 1999 autobiography Aretha: From These Roots, but he aimed to right that wrong by dropping all that dirt into his new book 15 years later, from her personal life (she gave birth to two sons while still in her teens) to her innumerable feuds with any soul singer or R&B diva who threatened her reign. There’s enough tension in this 15-second clip of Franklin walking past Patti LaBelle to power 25 Drake-vs.-Pusha-T fiascos.

It’s true that Franklin, at her feistiest, could come on like every Real Housewife in history stacked on one another’s shoulders in one giant fur coat. But look out when that coat hits the ground. Her performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors—with honoree Carole King flipping out in the audience while Barack Obama wiped tears from his eyes nearby—is an all-timer, a diva moment in the best sense, especially when she flings off her fur mid-climactic wail. Incredible. You can count on one hand, and maybe one finger, the artists with that combination of poise and sheer power. That song always belonged to her in the first place. And on a long enough timeline, every song ever written would’ve belonged to her eventually.