Publicity photo / Public Domain
In this tribute, singer Jacqui Hicks recalls the moment last week when she heard of the passing of Aretha Franklin, and remembers Aretha’s inescapable and irreplaceable artistry:
Thursday 16 August 2018. The rain had stopped, the clouds had parted, the sun was beginning to shine and I was sitting on the beach of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, enjoying the tranquil views, when the news broke. The irony wasn’t lost on me – there I was visiting the property of one Queen, reading about the passing of another. But this Queen was different. This Queen wasn’t born with a silver spoon or birthrights. This Queen didn’t assume nobility from day one. This Queen earned her well-deserved title and devoted subjects through one thing and one thing alone – musical genius! ‘Genius’ is a very overused word these days but in this particular case, for me, it’s no exaggeration. With every note, every phrase, every performance, she set the bar higher and higher. We hadn’t just lost one of the greatest, we’d lost THE greatest!
Aretha’s life is well documented. Born in Memphis on 25 March 1942, she grew up in Detroit from the age of five. The daughter of Barbara Siggers (an accomplished pianist and singer) and the Reverend C L Franklin, her strict Baptist upbringing didn’t stop her from giving birth to two illegitimate sons by the time she was 16. Her father was probably not the greatest example and his philandering (including fathering a child with one of his 12-year-old parishioners) eventually led to the breakdown of her parents’ marriage by the time Aretha was six years old. Her mother moved away and died from a heart attack at just 34. Several women, in particular her grandmother Rachel and the legendary Mahalia Jackson, took to the upbringing of the Franklin siblings while the Reverend became known as the man with the ‘million dollar voice’ whose sermons could command a small fortune. During this time Aretha taught herself to play piano by ear and by the age of 14 her father, with whom she was very close, was managing her, taking her on his ‘gospel caravan’ tours and helping her to sign her first recording contract with JVB records. At 18, however, Aretha announced that she wanted to follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke and record secular pop music.
The rest, as they say, is history but Aretha transcends every single cliche that’s ever been written about her. For some she was the voice of the civil rights movement; she sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King; the inauguration of three American presidents (including Barack Obama); she sang for popes and monarchs; won 18 Grammy awards and was the first female to be inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but none of these facts can emphasise the greatness of the woman.
The impact of any musician can be measured by their influence on those who follow and Aretha’s disciples are spread far and wide, from the great and gifted to the ‘also-rans’. No soul-tinged vocalist can say they weren’t inspired by her somewhere along the line. My own devotion was confirmed with her appearance on the Royal Variety Performance back in 1980. I’d heard her many times over the airwaves but had never seen her perform until then. I was instantly hooked. Alongside many other artists on stage that evening her class stood out.
Her technique was second to none, yet effortless. Her sound was huge, warm and totally natural. Her phrasing was exquisite; deliberate yet nonchalant, with every throwaway ending being just as important as the beginning. Debussy was quoted as saying that “music was the space between the notes”; Count Basie said “it’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out!” Aretha understood this better than anyone. Her abilities at the piano were probably a large contributing factor to this. Yes, she could wail like no other but she knew exactly when to do it. There were no affectations or gimmicks. She didn’t sing licks (like a lot of modern-day divas) and she didn’t fill every possible gap – I Say A Little Prayer is a perfect example of this, leaving space for the backing vocalists to take the tune in the chorus. She made you wait, created the tension (all great music is about tension and release) and then, when she went for it, she sent shivers down your spine like nobody else could. Not that I think she analysed her approach very closely – it was all too natural, too instinctive, too real – and that’s what made her the best. She said herself “some singers are trained, some singers are born, I hope I’m the latter!”
By all accounts she was very shy and reserved off stage but armed with a microphone she made everyone sit up and listen. “Give her a song and you never get it back!” Stevie once quipped. Indeed she took Otis Redding’s everyday male gripe and turned it on its head by making it an anthem for women worldwide. Lyrically she was asking for Respect, vocally she demanded it!
Many people, including Aretha, believed that her talent was a gift from God. Others thought that she herself was the gift. Whatever your religious standpoint, listening to her is a truly spiritual experience and, even though I’ll admit to shedding a tear when I read the news, I’m very grateful that she was around in my lifetime. Her genius will live on in all the wonderful recordings she’s left behind (my own personal favourite is Young Gifted & Black. A work of art from start to finish) and I know, like so many other musicians around the world, she will forever be Queen.
Yorkshire-born Jacqui Hicks is a UK-based jazz and soul singer, known above all for her work with big bands such as the Back to Basie Orchestra, for her two albums with John Critchinson, and as a member of Shakatak for more than two decades.