Singer, songwriter, pianist, inspiration, Aretha Franklin, known to many as the Queen of Soul, passed away Thursday. She was 76 years old.
In the last 24 hours, as we assume will continue for days, weeks, perhaps years, many artists and people of all walks of life have been sharing stories of how Franklin’s music and spirit touched their lives. Since we, too, have been sharing our own stories of the unique places Franklin’s music holds in all of our lives, we thought this was perhaps a more appropriate way to show our “Respect” to the Queen herself. If you’re looking to read a straightforward obituary of Franklin’s life and career, we highly recommend The Guardian’s piece.
Here’s how the Soundfly community remembers Aretha Franklin through some of her songs that left a lasting impression.
“Pledging My Love / The Clock”
I first heard this track a few years ago on a recording session and it really hit me. I probably listened to it 10 times the next day and played it for all of my students that week. There’s so much to listen for! The nuances of the feel are indescribable — everyone is so in tune with each other, and follows Aretha’s seriously commanding lead. “Pledging My Love” starts so tight — is the piano solo Aretha? It’s so lyrical and says so much with little more than the melody. The transition into “The Clock” raises the dynamics, Aretha kicking up the energy, hitting the tape harder. The band follows and the beat gets wider as they open up, drums filling into downbeats, the bass fills getting longer. Aretha really lets loose as the track fades, leaving us to wonder how much longer this went on. How wild did it eventually get? But I don’t need to know because it’s perfect exactly as it is.
Nick Millevoi, Flypaper author
“Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Aretha first tickled my ears with her quintessential rendition of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Not only was this electrically emotional performance on a level of vocal delivery I’d never heard, it was also my window into a broader swath of R&B and gospel sounds I’d not been exposed to in my youth. Aretha was the first benchmark I had of real soul in music, and I’m not sure she was ever topped!
Martin Fowler, Soundfly Mentor and staff
I can’t imagine a world without “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It is one of the most iconic examples of American songwriting, and though famously penned by Paul Simon, there is no better performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” than by Aretha Franklin. Listening back this morning to her 1970s recording of the song, I am overwhelmed by Aretha’s access to the tender heart of this lyric. Her interpretation is strong, honest, and frank, dripping with gorgeousness and grit. The melody is elevated to celestial status at the hand of the Queen of Soul. There are boundless lessons to be gleaned from her version of this song, both as musicians and songwriters. This recording is a golden reminder that how we convey an emotion during a song’s performance can be as important as the content of the song itself.
Raven Katz, Soundfly Mentor
I always felt particularly connected to Aretha as we shared Memphis roots. And my godfather (who was actually babysat by Aretha when they were young!) would often wax poetic about gigging with her whenever she played home. Much of her music and legacy touched and inspired me, but her rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” made me feel less alone in this world. Her powerful voice cooing “I will lay me down” brought tears of confirmation to my eyes when I needed to feel like I still mattered. And her rendition of “Respect” is there for me every time I need to woman up and let the world know that not only am I equal, in some aspects I am superb and that doesn’t make me any less feminine or worthy of a partner… but simply worthy of a partner that matches my stride.
Keturah Brown, Soundfly Mentor
Although I grew up listening to classic soul and rock, I didn’t really know who Aretha was until I was about 8 or 9. My music teacher had turned me on to the original Blues Brothers movie, and I watched with rapt attention. It was amazing to see so many music icons in one movie, but the standout for me was Aretha. The performance was (and is) absolutely outstanding! I have never heard a voice that could convey the depth and range of emotion the way she could. Her father was a Baptist minister and civil rights activist — and you could hear a great deal of her upbringing in her voice. She was on my bucket list of artists to see live. I was never able to make it happen, for various reasons, and I deeply regret it. One of my favorite songs of hers — and one I think shows how iconic she is – is her rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel. The song is already a classic in its original form. But she takes it, imbues it with deep, soulful meaning, and makes the song entirely her own. The first time I heard it, I got goosebumps — it’s just that good. It takes a true icon to take a song that’s well known and then elevate it to an unheard of level. Rest easy, Aretha. We will miss the undisputed Queen of Soul.
Dan Reifsnyder, Flypaper author
As with most of her music, I really have no idea when I first heard this. It’s one of those things where I just know it, it’s inside of me, I’m built from it. I’m sure my mother and all the music she played around the house has something to do with that. She’s funny. She’s wise. She’s hopeful. I think you can hear that in this song, in her music. I do remember hearing Corinne Bailey Rae sing “Day Dreaming” when I was a teenager, and having that feeling of déjà vu I mentioned earlier. Returning to the original song has always given me a sense of déjà rêvé, though, making its ties to actual day dreaming that much stronger.
I performed at a funeral, about a year ago, where the family requested we only play Aretha’s songs. What I considered strange and unusual actually made complete sense when it came time to deliver the music. There was less room for mourning when the air was filled with the lyrics and feelings of “Call Me,” “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “A Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Bless Aretha Franklin and what she managed to do for all of us paying attention. I wish I had paid a bit more attention while she was here. I hate that I’m here saying all of this only after she’s gone, but I’m more than happy to celebrate her and what she means to me.
Syl DuBenion, Flypaper author
To be honest, I wasn’t even aware Aretha Franklin had explored singing opera up until very recently. But when I eventually found out, of course, the first thing I needed to do was rush over to YouTube and hear it for myself. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting; thinking that this style of opera repertoire, the esteem of this particular piece, and the styles of music Franklin was more often found singing, would conflict with each other. But once I heard it, and heard her enthusiastic, adventurous energy poured into every dramatic note, all I could do was smile. It was exciting to see yet another artist tackle a bold piece outside of their woodshed and she did it with no fear, all while embracing her own unique voice — not just trying to sound some specialized way to fit the operatic mold. Aretha excelled at whatever she sang but this was admirable and exciting for reasons beyond proficiency. It was a sign of artistic open-mindedness, which is something I always admire.
Kira Grunenberg, Flypaper author
The string arrangements, the cold, hard panning of every instrument, yet with Aretha singing right between the eyes. This music is you sitting under a willow tree on the loneliest day of your life, wondering if he’s thinking of you, wondering if it’s really over forever, wondering if anyone out there still cares if you pick up the phone and call them, yet in your heart of hearts, you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s a whole world out there ready and waiting with open arms for you to come into their life. This song, to me, has always been the not-too-cheesy-to-actually-listen-to version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Aretha’s “Skylark” has got the real bitter of life’s sweet running through it. This song already knows you’re gonna be okay, before you even put it on. It’s already there, and it knows you’ll come back around.
Jeremy Young, Flypaper editor
The timeless classic “Respect” feels just as relevant, potent, and relatable today as it must have in 1967. Although the song was first released by Otis Redding two years prior, the musical and lyrical changes in Aretha’s version — not to mention her fiery vocal performance — tell a very different story. As a result, it quickly became her signature tune, as well as an anthem for anyone who has ever felt marginalized.
“It [reflected] the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect,” Franklin wrote in her 1999 autobiography. “It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”
Lisa Occhino, Soundfly staff
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
Something I once read about her singing (though I can’t remember where): She’s so great because she combines the seemingly contradictory qualities of power and relaxation. On the one hand, her voice is loud and commanding. Usually when someone sings that way, they’re audibly expending a lot of effort to do so, like opera singers or metal screamers. But Aretha sounds casual, relaxed, and even bored. The ability to completely command a song without seeming to raise her pulse is the thing that really sets her apart.
Ethan Hein, Soundfly instructor
Rest in peace, Aretha. Thank you for your inspiration.