Few living artists get to experience the kind of clear-headed appreciation that so many only receive posthumously. Aretha Franklin, who died on Thursday at age 76, did not have to wait. And why would she? Her voice, perhaps the most important and recognizable in the history of pop music, was not time-released. Its effect was immediate and profound, and audiences would hold onto the feeling until she returned. When the 29-year-old Franklin played Harlem’s Apollo Theater for a five-day concert series in the summer of 1971, the marquee read, “SHE’S HOME.”
Lines snaked down 125th Street, and overflow crowds had to be turned away during that stint. Peter Long, the Apollo’s community-relations director, described it then as “the most overwhelming thing we have ever had in the theater.”
Franklin had played the Apollo a half-decade prior, and the New York Times noted that the “somewhat unknown singer appeared … near the bottom of the bill.” She had a hell of a five-year period, though, one that included a slew of Gold Records and several No. 1 R&B singles including “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Call Me.” By the time she returned to Harlem, the Apollo was proud to stake its claim as the Detroit-raised singer’s “home.” Franklin, an individual talent in almost every sense of the word, bristled at the marquee’s phrasing. “I haven’t been anywhere to come back home,” she told Times journalist C. Gerald Fraser.
The late ’60s marked a period of ascendent fame and strife for Franklin. A 1968 Time magazine cover story described how Ted White, her husband at the time, physically abused her. “She remains cloaked in a brooding sadness,” it read, “all the more achingly impenetrable because she rarely talks about it—except when she sings.”
A year before those summer Apollo performances, Franklin had canceled concerts amid rumors of a mental breakdown. But this did not deter attendance or excitement in Harlem; 32,000 people were reported to have flocked to see her over five days.
“No matter how pained she is in the song, she is never the victim,” one of her fans outside the theater told the Times. “She can deal with it. That’s the way we are. We can deal with it.”
After her final Apollo performance in that run, Jesse H. Walker of the New York Amsterdam News wrote, “Aretha Franklin is gone, and 125th Street looks deserted again after 8 p.m.”
Weeks later, a woman wrote a letter to the paper’s editor, though it was directed wholly to Franklin. “I speak now not only for myself, but everyone who had the pleasure and privilege of seeing you at the Apollo Theater,” she wrote. “You were soul-shattering; better yet, electrifying. You gave us your all and you know we really appreciated it … We don’t mean to work you so hard, it’s just that we love you so much. So call us, the moment you get back.”
Read more of Slate’s coverage of Aretha Franklin.