Aretha Franklin Was the Defining Voice of the 20th Century

No one sang as well as her, and no singer changed pop music more.

Aretha Franklin on The Andy Williams Show which aired May 4, 1969.
Aretha Franklin on The Andy Williams Show, aired May 4, 1969. Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Fred A. Sabine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.

Aretha Franklin’s was the voice of the 20th century. No other singer left such a definitive mark on the course of popular music—simply put, there is singing before Aretha Franklin, and there is singing after her. Her combination of technique, precision, nuance, and sheer power was approached by vanishingly few others—Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, two of Franklin’s greatest influences, come to mind—but Franklin also possessed a peerless intuition for forging profound intimacy with a vast range of listeners, an astonishing gift for such a rarefied talent. She had the voice of a god and, just as importantly, the heart and mind of a human visionary, and her late-1960s emergence into superstardom, as a virtuoso black woman steeped in the musical and cultural life of the church, was a watershed in American culture.

It’s a cliché to describe someone as “destined for greatness,” but the words fit Franklin as well as they have any artist. She was the daughter of the nationally famous Rev. C.L. Franklin, raised in a household frequented by guests like Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cooke himself. She was a musical prodigy and, with her father’s encouragement, began a gospel recording career at the age of 14. At age 18 she was signed to Columbia Records by the legendary talent scout John Hammond, who’d already nurtured the careers of artists like Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Billie Holiday. (Less than two years after signing Franklin, Hammond signed a young folk singer named Robert Zimmerman, who continues to record for Columbia under a pseudonym.)

Columbia’s botching of Franklin’s early career is one of the more well-worn cautionary tales in the annals of popular music. Ignorant of the depths of her talent, the story goes, Columbia tried to force her into being a watered-down Dinah Washington clone, squandering her for a half-decade by having her sing banal trifles and fusty standards. There’s some truth to this, but it’s also not totally fair to the parties involved. For starters, Franklin’s Columbia albums are quite good and occasionally truly great. They just weren’t very popular, largely because neither Columbia nor Franklin’s career advisers foresaw the forces that would inexorably alter the musical and social landscape of pop music from 1960 (when Franklin signed with Columbia) to 1966 (when Columbia finally dropped her), forces that included Motown, the Beatles, Stax, and James Brown, to name just a few. In fact, Motown founder Berry Gordy allegedly tried to woo the Detroit-raised Franklin to his upstart label early in her career but the Rev. Franklin rejected the overtures, believing Gordy’s fledgling family-operated independent was a woefully insufficient home for his daughter’s enormous talents. The reverend was right, of course, until he was wrong.

What happened next is history. The venerable American R&B label Atlantic Records, whose vice president Jerry Wexler was salivating at the untapped potential of Franklin, signed her with the intention of turning her into a pop superstar. Wexler made the shrewd decision to put Franklin in front of a piano in the studio, tapping a crucial component of her musicality that Columbia had often neglected to showcase. (Franklin was an absolutely extraordinary pianist: On many of her Atlantic recordings, the piano is the most memorable and thrilling non-vocal instrument, no small feat given that she was playing alongside some of the best session musicians on earth.) It was on the Atlantic label that Aretha Franklin suddenly went from veteran recording artist with a years-long track record of commercial underperformance to an overnight sensation. In 1967 and 1968 alone, Franklin charted nine Top Ten Pop hits, including the No. 1 smash “Respect,” a cover of a recent Otis Redding hit that Franklin transformed into one of the most famous pieces of music ever recorded. (“That little girl stole my song,” Redding is said to have remarked, correctly.)

If there’s one aspect of Franklin’s story that I think is often overlooked, particularly by younger generations, it’s just how huge she was. In the late 1960s—a period that we can generally agree was pretty great for music—Aretha Franklin was probably the most famous solo artist on earth. Poets and essayists rhapsodized over her. In June 1968, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine. She would get incessantly name-dropped in contexts that had almost nothing to do with music, simply because she was all anyone wanted to talk about. She released a recording of “Let It Be” before the Beatles had released theirs, because Paul McCartney had sent Jerry Wexler an acetate demo of the song in hopes she’d sing it. She of course continued to make astonishingly great music well into the 1970s, particularly the live gospel double-LP Amazing Grace from 1972, a hugely ambitious and deeply personal piece of work that became the highest-selling album of her career. These years also found Franklin foregrounding her own political commitments more explicitly, frequently expressing solidarity with civil rights activists and cultural-nationalist movements and gravitating toward material that emphasized these stances. (Her 1972 recording of Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine’s “(To Be) Young, Gifted and Black,” found on the phenomenal album that bears its name, is one of Franklin’s most powerful performances.)

Even at the height of her stardom, a lot of people got Aretha Franklin wrong. She was often held up as both singular emblem and apotheosis of an entire black musical tradition, and (usually white) writers tried to force her into the mold of stereotypical beliefs of what that tradition was, often through a romantic exoticism rife with racist fantasies of social and emotional pathology. This type of writing stung and deeply angered Franklin—not only because it was condescending and presumptuous, but also because it was simply incorrect. Franklin wasn’t some idealized stereotype magically brought to life, but rather a testament to a rich multiplicity of black American life that many white commentators—even well-meaning ones—have long tended to ignore. Here was a young woman whose trajectory had gone from prodigy to showbiz kid to pro’s pro to has-been to superstar, all before her 25th birthday. Aretha Franklin wasn’t some mystical vessel but rather a cosmopolitan and fully formed artist in devastating command of her craft. She was exceptional in every sense, and had become that way through a combination of genius and her own tireless work.

Franklin’s most famous recordings—“Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and so many others—are so fundamental to American popular music that they’re basically the air we breathe. I don’t remember the first time I heard Aretha Franklin, much in the way I don’t remember the first time I saw a sunset or ate a bowl of ice cream. Living in a world with Aretha Franklin’s music is one of the great privileges of being a human being. And yet this presents its own challenge on a day like today, when we should strive to get deeper than even that type of familiarity, which is itself a testament to a world-altering artist.

One of my favorite Franklin recordings is a demo of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” which is from sometime in 1966 but wasn’t officially released until 2007, on the clunkily titled yet essential 2-CD set Rare & Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul. “I Never Loved a Man” was, of course, the song that finally broke Aretha Franklin into stardom and changed American music, hitting the Top 10 on the Pop chart (and No. 1 over on R&B) in early 1967. The recorded version that everyone knows, featuring the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section and Spooner Oldham’s humming Wurlitzer piano riff, is sometimes cited as the apotheosis of Southern soul. (The story behind that recording is legendary unto itself, and I won’t go into it here, other than to say that a number of years ago the critic Matt Dobkin wrote an excellent book about the recording of the song and the album that shares its name.)

The demo bears only a passing resemblance to the hit. For starters, it’s remarkably austere—to my ears, the only personnel on the track are Franklin on piano and vocal, an upright bass player, and a drummer. The song’s famous Wurlitzer part—improvised by Oldham on the spot—isn’t present, although you can almost hear hints of it in Franklin’s own piano performance, like it’s floating around in some great musical ether just waiting to be born from someone’s fingers. At one point before she starts singing, Franklin coughs, just once, as if to let you know she’s a normal human just like you before spending the next three minutes or so proving otherwise.

“I Never Loved a Man” was written by Ronnie Shannon, and it’s a simple song. Its chord changes evoke a blues, but its form is even more spacious and skeletal than the traditional 12-bar form. It’s a song that entirely depends on a singer, someone who can take its lyrical themes of snake-bitten masochism and render them with the appropriate mix of swagger, humor, and sensuality to allow the song to rise above what it is at its most literal: a song about an abusive relationship. In the hands of a mediocre singer, “I Never Loved a Man” would simply be a song about being wounded, and really, who wants to listen to that? It’s a song that needs Aretha Franklin, and at this moment she needs it.

There’s a charming tentativeness to that 1966 demo, as is usually the case with such recordings. The bass player and the drummer are striving for atmosphere more than emphasis, feeling their way through the form, evidently unsure of whether they’re really going for it or just fooling around. Aretha is unmistakably going for it, but she’s also having fun: Her vocal sounds exploratory in the best way, playing around with phrasing, dancing around some words and pitches while landing on others like a hammer, throwing in perfectly executed melismatic runs when her footing gets sure enough. Some of these experiments will make their way into the take she’ll record in Muscle Shoals, the one that soon will change her life, and everyone else’s.

What is there, unmistakably, is the sound of genius and a ferociously ambitious perseverance. Here is a woman who’s spent her late teens and early 20s—prime years for many singers—languishing at a record label that didn’t understand what to do with her while her generational peers were changing the entire landscape of music, all the while knowing she’s more talented than any of them. But she knows she’s still got a chance, and that this song might be part of it, and the result is the very mix of urgency, command, and deep joy that will soon become the hallmark of her art. Every time she hits that refrain—“I ain’t never loved a man/ the way that I love you”—she wrings new meanings and implications out of it, until a phrase that at first seemed almost offhand in its folksy simplicity now seems impossibly alluring and complex.

All of this is already there on a recording that, by design, barely anyone would ever hear. It’s nowhere near as great as the finished, studio version—a distinction it shares with literally almost every other piece of music ever recorded—but it’s a gift in its own right, an actual rough draft of musical history. It’s like peeking through the keyhole of a new world, the one that Aretha Franklin would soon give us. Living in that world has never felt more like a privilege.

Read more in Slate about Aretha Franklin:
“Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin Dies at 76
How Aretha Franklin Created the Greatest Cover of All Time
• “Rest in Peace, Soul Sister”: Musicians and Admirers Pay Tribute to Aretha Franklin