The “Queen of Soul” joined the celestial choir after 76 years of beautifully and powerfully singing her gospel to the world.
As the daughter of Rev. C.L. Franklin, an influential Baptist minister in Detroit, Aretha Franklin honed her voice in the black church and its quest for liberation and equality. Her voice echoed that journey, combining the narratives of struggle and freedom to create a soulfulness that shaped the U.S.
Aretha’s songs were filled with realism, frustration, determination, resolve, courage, liberation and fulfillment. Her voice sounded like an angelic force belting out lyrics that captured listeners and touched their souls.
As we mourn the loss of such a stunning and powerful force, I would like to honor the Queen of Soul by examining five of her most famous recordings in light of her gospel.
Aretha’s signature song, “Respect,” released in April 1967, earned a Grammy Award for Best R&B Recording.
Originally written in 1965 for Otis Redding, Aretha’s version was changed to fit her personality and voice.
Redding’s version was from the perspective of a man seeking his woman’s respect by bringing money home, while Aretha’s version was from the point of view of a strong, independent woman demanding respect from her man.
The song’s message galvanized the feminist movement in the U.S., as a rallying cry for liberated women everywhere.
However, there seemed to be an even deeper message for all humanity: Respect was the first step humanity must take if marginalized people were to be treated as equals around the world.
Aretha released another song in 1967 titled “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.”
Already established as a powerful voice with the success of “Respect,” Aretha allowed her femininity to define her feminism. Co-written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, the song, as performed by Aretha, reveals the inner soul.
“Natural Woman” is not a requirement for the mere social constructs of relationships, but the lyrics are a self-revelation for anyone seeking human connectedness that fills the soul.
After the massive success of “Respect” and “Natural Woman,” Aretha released “Chain of Fools” in November 1967, bringing her another Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
The honest lyrics and Aretha’s powerful voice are classic examples of the gospel she preached through her singing, as she genuinely and authentically confronted the reality of being chained to a way of life.
With the final verse, she vocalizes hope, “One of these mornings, the chain is going to break.” Aretha’s gospel was one of genuineness, reality and hope.
The same year Aretha won the Grammy for “Chain of Fools,” she released another song titled “Think.”
While it did not have the success of “Chain,” it rose to prominence in 1980 when she re-released it when she was cast in “The Blues Brothers” starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
With “Think,” Aretha continued the theme of realism, as she vocalizes frustrations with those who take for granted and take advantage of those in the world.
Again, she harmonizes hope in the chorus as she sings of freedom, “Oh, freedom, yeah, freedom.” Her gospel of hope is leading to freedom.
Finally, any talk of the “Gospel According to Aretha” would fall short if her 1972 recording of “Amazing Grace” was not mentioned.
Listening to Aretha’s interpretation of John Newton’s 1779 famous hymn about the grace of God upon a sinner is a moving experience, humbling the mind and settling the soul.
Aretha took this richly theological text, fusing it with the power and pain of the history of black church spiritualism.
Listeners will know they have been to “church” once they close their eyes and get lost – and found – as the Queen of Soul perfectly harmonizes and captures the essence of God’s amazing grace toward us all.
Aretha was a unique talent created by God for whom we should all be eternally grateful.
The Gospel According to Aretha was a perfect combination of soul and hope. Her soul was authentic, genuine and real, shining light into the world.
Still, she never gave in to the temptation of accepting circumstances without the presence of hope.
Keep pressing on, respecting self and demanding respect from others. Keep discovering relationships that bring deep meaning to life. Keep hope in your heart during painful challenges, for one day those chains will fall.
Why? Simply stated, God’s amazing grace is sufficient for all, covering the sins and pains of this world, as it provides the healing balm for the soul.
Rest in Peace, Aretha, the Queen of Soul.