Robert Christgau on Aretha, the Genius Behind a Voice Unlike Any Other
Aretha Franklin defined soul music and the nooks and crannies of her power were as impressive as her peaks
Aretha Franklin will be mourned as the "Queen of Soul," which is as it should be. It was her rocket ride up the charts under Atlantic's Jerry Wexler in 1967 and 1968 that established "soul" as a cultural given and transformed Franklin into the mythic presence she'd remain for half a century. Mining a beloved voice that's defied description for just as long, those two years generated four classic albums good for eight hits, seven top 10 although only the definitive "Respect" a Number One. Soon "soul" became such a feel-good catchword that Lady Soul seemed as natural a title for the sequence's finale as "A Natural Woman" did for its other defining moment.
But the heyday of soul's onward-and-upward was brief, and Detroit-raised prodigy Franklin--who hit Atlantic at 24 having already recorded a teen gospel session and 10 pop-jazz albums for Columbia's John Hammond--got restless fast. Her 1970 Spirit in the Dark nudged her soul band toward lounge, and in 1972 came Young, Gifted and Black, a pop album more gifted and black than Hammond or Wexler could have imagined; "Rock Steady" rocked steadily enough, but its "Day Dreaming and "All the King's Horses" follow-ups didn't, and neither did the Nina Simone-composed title song. Franklin's young black gifts were ranging so wide she could sing anything she felt like.
Not that it was that simple--with this woman of deep intelligence, stormy emotions, and divatude to spare, nothing ever was. Right after Young, Gifted and Black came the double-live Amazing Grace, both Franklin's and gospel's best-selling album ever and for many Queen of Soul faithful her musical peak. Whereupon Franklin spent the rest of the Seventies floundering on Atlantic--only two top 40 hits between 1974 and 1980. So at 38 she committed to crass-and-proud Arista hit man Clive Davis, and while soul loyalists hold their noses at the disco-tainted ministrations of Luther Vandross, who worshipped the singer in her, and Narada Michael Walden, who outdid himself forever with 1985's jumpy Who's Zoomin' Who?, her 1981-89 Aristas proved far more consistent and focused than her 1974-79 Atlantics. Which is to say that unlike any other soul icon except the gospelized Al Green, Franklin managed to outlive her own heyday. Somehow, some way, she made stylistic adjustments on her own terms. While no longer a chart-topping sure shot, she scored her hits and kept up with the times. She had become the queen of pop.
There was a major lag in the Nineties--Franklin lost two beloved siblings and a matriarchal grandmother as the Eighties closed. But in 1998 came the undervalued pan-postsoul tour de force A Rose Is Still a Rose, followed creditably by 2003's So Damn Happy. And nine years after that came 2012's Davis-overseen Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. As with Rod Stewart's Davis-masterminded Great American Songbook series, purists slot this chestnut collection a cheap shot--the voice has roughened audibly and the arrangements strike some as expedient. But it was a hell of a way for Aretha Franklin to go out as mistress of all she surveyed. From Streisand's "People" to Adele's "Rollin' in the Deep," she sounded older. After all, she was. But she also sounded completely at ease with a stylistic range and personal authority she'd spent 50 years establishing.
Franklin was an accomplished pianist who did far more arranging than her big-name collaborators lead some to believe. The nooks and crannies of her soul are as unmappable as its peaks and canyons. But ultimately we all know that her legend comes down to a voice that passeth all understanding. Setting out to write this, I put a 50-year span of five chronologically dispersed albums on shuffle, and different as they were they felt of a piece from John Hammond's ingenuous "Over the Rainbow" to Clive Davis's battered "I Will Survive." How did I expect to find words for this vocal miracle on a death deadline? Well, I had a backup plan.
When I taught music history at NYU, I took to asking my students to share whatever words they could to describe Aretha's voice. Like me, most of them felt that voice was one thing whatever its vintage, and here are a few of their consciously paradoxical impressions. "Husky yet airy." "Effortless yet emotional." "Effortlessly triumphant." "Wild and controlled." "Surprisingly big, considering how high her timbre is." "Like freshly sanded wood, polished and smooth yet natural and unfinished." "Cashmere with a hint of woolen rasp." "The notes come out perfectly on pitch yet pillowy with subharmonics." "A resiny warm quality, as if it was played with a bow." "Screaming never sounded so sweet." "Married to the flow."
Does that wrap it up? Of course not. But maybe it's a start.