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Aretha And that Seven Letter Word
by Vern Hester
2018-08-19

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For musicologists and pop culture nerds there is a very funny inside joke in Taylor Hackford's musical bio film Ray ( 2004 ). Ray Charles ( played by Jamie Foxx ) informs his collaborators, record producer Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun, that after selling millions of records he is leaving for a far more lucrative contract with another company. Wexler and Ertegun literally have a melt down on the spot fearing that they will never find another artist with such an immense and rich talent.

The punch line of the joke was that six years later, a bewildered young woman named Aretha Franklin would walk into tiny Atlantic Records and, with the help of Wexler and Ertegun, change everything. Not just soul music, rock and roll, entertainment, or pop culture but with that first collaboration they showed how an artistic medium could impact society, define an era and change minds.

Franklin, who passed away Aug. 16 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 76, was a game changer who initially didn't know the power of her own talents.

Her first major label contract was with Columbia Records under the watchful eye of bandleader and label head Mitch Miller ( THAT Mitch Miller ) who wasted time and energy trying to squeeze her talents into a mold. Miller clearly had no idea what to do with Franklin and when her contract lapsed Wexler grabbed her. Wexler and Ertagun knew exactly what to do with her and they immediately whisked her to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and turned her loose. The first song on her first Atlantic album was a cover of Otis Redding's "Respect," and when it was released as the second single in early 1967 it soared to No. 1 and made her an instant icon.

Franklin's version of "Respect" ( Redding, who would die shortly after she recorded it said publicly that he preferred her far less restrained version ) is a song that simultaneously ignited several seemingly unrelated movements and articulated a troubling era. Much like "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones, "My Generation" by The Who, or "Like A Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan, it expressed what the mid-1960s youth of America felt and what the older generation could not grasp.

But Franklin's recording went much deeper and had a larger impact. A pampered Brit white boy from the suburbs yammering about satisfaction didn't have nearly the bite of a Black woman from Detroit who wouldn't simper or beg like the submissive Diana Ross ( who was the most popular Black female vocalist at the time ), but demanded and felt entitled to respect. The song may be about a romantic confrontation, but the fury that Franklin fueled it with spoke to feminists, African Americans, the youth, whites, gays, lesbians, men, women, the under priviledged, and the ostracized.

When the record hit in 1967 the nation was divided and confused. Assasinations, rioting, the conflict in Vietnam, the erosion of the American dream, pollution, the encroachment of urban blight all contributed and the song became a battle cry specifically for its time. That Franklin had been restrained at Columbia gave her the chance to release her talents in a fierce torrent and the charisma of her singing was almost revolutionary. It was the right talent with the right song at the right time and down through the years as more specific battles are fought ( trans rights, immigration, gun violence, education, etc. ) it's still intensely inspirational.

It is unrealistic to think that Franklin could maintain such a seismic impact a mere year after "Respect" but if anything she endured and did it better than anyone had a right to expect.

Her collaborations with Wexler continued her string of classics ( "Think," "Eleanor Rigby," "Spanish Harlem," "Angel," "Chain of Fools," "The House that Jack Built," etc. ), and every decade provided a new comeback with different collaborators ( "Jump To It" with Luther Vandross, "Who's Zoomin Who?" with Eurythmics, the Sparkle soundtrack with Curtis Mayfield, her electrifying cameo in the otherwise dim Blues Brothers movie, "I Knew You Were Waiting" with George Michael, "A Rose is Still a Rose" with Lauryn Hill ) and she was never far from the spotlight.

Her annual concerts here in Chicago—not far from her home in Detroit—made her accessible, President Obama and President Clinton insisting on her singing at their inaugurations indicates that the lady, her talents, and her recordings were a national treasure.

Related article at www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Aretha-Franklin-dies-at-76/63812.html .


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