Black History Month: Celebrating Aretha Franklin
Posted on 02/17/2021
Born in Memphis in 1942 and raised in Detroit, Aretha Franklin was the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a gospel singer. Her natural talent and distinctive voice were evident: by 14, she’d already recorded her first tracks and performed on tour. Just four years later, she moved to New York, signed with Columbia Records, and released her first album, Aretha, in 1961—the first of over two dozen studio albums.
The two sides of Franklin’s career definitively came together in 1967, when Franklin released a cover of Otis Redding’s song “Respect”—the breakthrough song that made Franklin a household name.
While Redding’s song was narrated from a male point of view, Franklin subverted the song’s original gender dynamics and tone. In Franklin’s hands, the song became a woman’s demand for respect from the people around her, and a call for respect for everyone. “Because people want respect—even small children, even babies. As people, we deserve respect from one another,” Aretha Franklin reflected in a 2016 interview with Vogue.
The song also acquired special significance in the context of the 1960s civil rights movement.
It encapsulated much of the Black community’s fight for equal rights and equal respect from white America. Women’s activists also saw the song as a call for equal rights, and “Respect” catapulted to the top of the charts.
Franklin continued recording, performing, and supporting civil rights throughout the succeeding decades. She ultimately won 18 Grammy® Awards (out of 44 nominations) and hit the R&B Top 10 no fewer than 33 times. Even as disco and new wave music ruled the radio waves in the 1970s and 1980s, Franklin remained a powerful force in music and the ongoing fight for civil rights.
Audiences in New Jersey had the opportunity to hear Franklin’s fearless voice, too. On Tuesday, May 9, 2006, she performed at State Theatre New Jersey to nothing less than a sold-out crowd. Wearing a sparkly red dress and a matching red shawl, she kicked off the show with the most iconic song of them all: “Respect.”
From “the first note of her opener,” wrote Home News Tribune reporter Chris Jordan,
“there was no doubt that she’s the real thing. Franklin’s voice has a fullness and richness no one can match, and a soulfulness, thanks to ascending trills and scatty improvs, that make her the Queen of Soul.”
During the performance, Franklin also sang some of her other memorable hits, including “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” and “Skylark.”
She gave an additional, sold-out performance at STNJ on May 19, 2007.
Sadly, Franklin battled numerous health problems at the end of her life, and died of pancreatic cancer in 2017. However, her profound legacy and voice will live on as a vital part of American culture and music.
By Catherine Babikian