Aretha Franklin (1969) recording at Atlantic Records in New York.

 

SHE WAS A NATIONAL TREASURE. A beacon for the world. The Queen of Soul. Aretha Louise Franklin (1942-2018), whose powerful voice provided a soundtrack for change in America, died yesterday at her home in Detroit. She was 76. The cause was advanced pancreatic cancer.

Tributes to Franklin dominated the news cycle. Outpourings came from those closest to her in the music industry and civil rights community. Fond memories were also offered from figures and institutions in the art world, that like so many others recalled how her music influenced many, many lives, particularly in significant historic moments and important times of celebration.

What stood out was the widespread recognition of the ways in which Franklin used her platform to support racial justice. Back in the day, she used her voice to raise money to help keep Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference afloat and she was willing to bail Angela Davis out of jail. Rev. Al Sharpton noted her penchant for news and said she pressed him for updates about recent high-profile cases of black men killed by police.

In a 1971 interview with Jet magazine, Franklin said of Davis: I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people.”

Denied bail, Davis was later acquitted. But Franklin had been ready to step up. Yesterday, Davis spoke to the Atlanta Journal Constitution about what happened.

“As soon as the campaign for bail was created, Aretha came forward and said if bail was set she would pay whatever amount was needed, whether $100,000 or $200,000—which was a lot of money at the time,” Davis told the newspaper.

“I thanked her publicly for it many times, but can’t remember if we actually spoke to each other,” she said. “Aretha’s music speaks for itself—“Respect,” “Natural Woman”—all of these are anthems for the movement. She did not have to do anything besides her music to raise people’s consciousness. That is her most important contribution.”

“Aretha’s music speaks for itself—“Respect,” “Natural Woman”—all of these are anthems for the movement. She did not have to do anything besides her music to raise people’s consciousness. That is her most important contribution.” — Angela Davis


Aretha Franklin performs at the Elton John AIDS Foundation 25th anniversary gala at Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on Nov, 7, 2017. | Photo by Theo Wargo, Getty Images

 


Aretha Franklin performs at inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. Obama was sworn in as the 44th U.S. president, the first African American to hold the office. | Photo by Dennis Brack, Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

FRANKLIN EMPOWERED WOMEN and loved black people and her adopted hometown of Detroit. From the grassroots fight for civil rights to the mainstream embrace of the first black president, Franklin was ever present. She sang “Precious Lord Take My Hand” at the funerals of King (1968) and gospel pioneer Mahalia Jackson (1972). Nearly four decades later, she commanded the attention of the nation and the world with her rendition of “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

Obama issued a heartfelt statement about his friend. He said:

    America has no royalty. But we do have a chance to earn something more enduring. Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, Aretha Franklin grew up performing gospel songs in her father’s congregation. For more than six decades since, every time she sang, we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine. Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade—our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.

    Aretha may have passed on to a better place, but the gift of her music remains to inspire us all. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace. Michelle and I send our prayers and warmest sympathies to her family and all those moved by her song.

“Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade—our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.” — President Obama


Jon Pareles, chief popular music critic at the New York Times, narrates this moving tribute to Aretha Franklin. “She could do rhythm and blues. She could do jazz. She could do opera. She could do country probably,” he said. “They started calling her the Queen of Soul in the 60s, she was barely in her 20s and nobody argued.” | Video by The New York Times

 

INDEED, HER UNMATCHED GIFT for song was universally praised. For more than half a century, she commanded countless audiences in the church house and on concert stages. In a 1994 profile of Franklin, Vanity Fair cited a passage from Taylor Branch’s seminal book, “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” that demonstrates her phenomenal gift was evident early on:

    …Taylor Branch describes a 1963 concert held at Chicago’s McCormick Place to honor the heroes of Birmingham, where scores of protesting schoolchildren had been attacked by police with dogs and fire hoses. After Martin Luther King (C. L. Franklin’s good friend) spoke, Mahalia Jackson sang, joined by Dinah Washington, Queen of the Blues. “The three of them,” writes Branch, “held the overflow crowd until two o’clock in the morning, when young Aretha Franklin topped them all with her closing hymn. Only twenty-one, already a battered wife and the mother of two children aged six and four… Aretha Franklin still remained four years away from crossover stardom as Lady Soul, but she gave the whites in her audience a glimpse of the future. She wrung them all inside out with the Thomas Dorsey classic ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand,’ and by the time she finished few doubted that for one night they had held the most favored spot on earth.”
 


Aretha Franklin’s portrait now on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., is by Milton Glaser, the famous graphic designer who is best known for creating the “I love NY” logo. Glaser’s image of Franklin was an insert in Eye Magazine, a short-lived publication for young adults sponsored by the Hearst Corporation. The magazine ceased publication in 1969 having distributed only 15 issues. The poster lived on, becoming a big seller with millions purchased around the world. | Shown, Aretha Franklin by Milton Glaser (color photolithographic poster), 1968. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © Milton Glaser

 

FRANKLIN IS ALSO BEING REMEMBERED in the art sector. The California African American Museum noted that her “stirring rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ rings through our galleries in the current exhibition ‘How Sweet the Sound: Gospel Music in Los Angeles.Today.'” The Kennedy Center, which honored her in 2015, called her a “consumate artist and our dear friend.” In less than a day, illustrator Kadir Nelson created a cover for The New Yorker paying homage to Franklin.

At the Smithsonian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and American Art Museum penned tributes. The National Portrait Gallery installed a portrait of the musical legend in the museum’s In Memoriam space. Franklin’s portrait will displayed through Aug. 23.

The portrait is a 1968 poster by graphic designer Milton Glaser. The National Portrait Gallery acquired an original of the poster in 2011. The Smithsonian Magazine asked Asma Naeem, the National Portrait Gallery’s associate curator of prints, drawings and media arts, who was just appointed chief curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, to describe the work.

Naeem said: “[The portrait] has an electricity, a pulsating rhythm, that you can just imagine that her voice had. …Glaser’s design—from the patterning, color, composition and shapes, all suggest the amazing verve and energy of Aretha Franklin.”

“[The portrait] has an electricity, a pulsating rhythm, that you can just imagine that her voice had. …Glaser’s design—from the patterning, color, composition and shapes, all suggest the amazing verve and energy of Aretha Franklin.” — Curator Asma Naeem

A few years after acquiring the poster, the National Portrait Gallery presented Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize at the inaugural American Portrait Gala in 2015. She performed some of her most memorable hits at the fete, including “Respect,” “Freedom,” and “Chain of Fools.”

Events celebrating Franklin’s life are planned for the end of the month. On Aug. 31, a private funeral will be held at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit. In advance of the service, Franklin will lie in state for two days (Sept. 28-29) at the city’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. CT

 

UPDATE (9/18/18): This post was revised to provide updated funeral and viewing information.

 

TOP IMAGE: Aretha Franklin sings in the Atlantic Records studio during ‘The Weight’ recording session on January 9, 1969, New York, N.Y. | Photo by Michael Ochs Archives,Getty Images

 

READ MORE about Aretha Franklin’s life in an extensive profile published in 1994, greatest performances, civil rights legacy, favor among American presidents, and presence at the Smithsonian. Also see the Best Photos of Franklin from Getty Images.

 

BOOKSHELF
Published in 2015, “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin” by David Ritz offers a “complex portrait” of the Queen of Soul. The author wrote an earlier account of her life in 1999. Last year, Essence magazine issued a collectors volume, “Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul,” featuring a half century of images documenting Franklin’s life and career. “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63” by Taylor Branch is a phenomenal account of the early years of the Civil Rights Movement that includes a moving passage about a stunning 1963 performance by Aretha Franklin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an editorially independent solo project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many thanks for your support.