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The Inspirational Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died in August 2018 at the age of 76. With her death, among the musical tributes, came a rush of tabloid-style headlines about the notoriously private singer.

Franklin was a phenomenal artist with an unquestionable place in music history. The first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 1987), ranked number 1 on VH1’s Greatest Women of Rock N Roll, she sang at a memorial service for Martin Luther King Jr. (1968), at pre-inauguration concerts for Presidents Jimmy Carter (1977) and Bill Clinton (1993), and the inauguration of America’s first black President, Barak Obama (in 2009). In 1986, her voice was designated a “Natural Resource” by the State of Michigan. In 2008, she was voted the greatest singer of the rock era in a Rolling Stone magazine poll. During the 1988 Grammy Awards show, she stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti who was unable to appear due to ill health, performing the aria Nessun Dorma in his place. She went on to perform this aria several more times, the last of which was in Philadelphia for Pope Francis.

In a career spanning six and a half decades she placed more than 100 singles in the billboard charts, including 17 top 10 pop singles and 20 no. 1 hits on the R&B chart, a number matched only by Stevie Wonder and not yet bettered by any artist. Already a successful R&B/Soul singer in the 1960s, her 1967 recording of Otis Redding’s song RESPECT from the album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, which spent 2 weeks at number 1 in the billboard chart, won her international acclaim and mainstream recognition.

She received 18 competitive Grammy awards, has five recordings in the Grammy Hall of Fame (Respect, Amazing Grace, Chain Of Fools, A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like), and I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You) and was given a lifetime achievement award in 1994.

One remarkable aspect of Franklin’s career was the turbulent life that prompted the probing headlines. She wasn’t a textbook success story or a kid with all the opportunities. Born in Memphis, Tennessee and brought up in Detroit, Michigan, her childhood was full of challenges. Her parents separated when she was just 6 and her mother (who was a gospel singer and pianist) died at the age of just 34 of a heart attack when Franklin was only 10 years old. Her first marriage was abusive and her life was plagued by rumours of addiction – to alcohol (which Franklin denied) and cannabis – and by health problems associated with her weight.

In many ways, her upbringing and aspirations were reflective of the times. Part of a generation of black baby boomers who were still very church-orientated, she was brought up by her father, a minister of national influence who presided over New Bethel Baptist Church. Although she never learned to read music, as a young teenager, Franklin performed with her father on his gospel programmes in major cities and was recognised as a vocal prodigy.

On June 10, 1979, her father was shot at home at point blank range by a burglar when she was on stage in Las Vegas. For the five years until his death, he required 24-hour care.

Franklin made the move to secular music at the age of 18. With the support of her father, to whom she confided she wanted to follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke and record pop songs, she moved to New York City, where she was signed by Colombia Records executive John Hammond. Hammond had previously signed Billie Holiday and Count Basie. She released her first single under Colombia at the age of 18, and although it reached number 10 on the Hot Rhythm and Blues Sellers chart and was met with critical acclaim, a lack of focus in her output at meant she initially struggled to find the success for which she was destined.

However, in 1966 when her contract with Colombia expired, she switched to Atlantic Records where, rather than determining her artistic direction, her producer Jerry Wexler gave her the freedom to explore her own musical identity.

Franklin returned to her gospel roots, exemplified by constantly improvisatory, airborne vocals, and I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Atlantic, 1967) was her first million-seller. Her first single with Atlantic, RESPECT, became an anthem for personal, racial and sexual freedom in line with her own values.

Franklin was immersed throughout her life in the struggle for civil rights and women’s rights. She provided money for civil rights groups and performed at benefits and protests. In 1970, when political activist, author and academic, Angel Davis was jailed, Franklin told Jet:

Angela Davis must go free, … Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people.

Franklin was a strong advocate for Native American rights. Quietly and without publicity, she supported the struggles of indigenous people worldwide and numerous movements that supported Native American and First Nation cultural rights. She also donated heavily to churches and food banks in the Detroit area.

[Photo by Pete Souza]

Franklin gave her last full concert at the Ravinia Festival on September 3, 2017, and her final performance was at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City during Elton John’s 25th anniversary gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation on November 7, 2017. She died of advanced pancreatic cancer.

She is known for significant contributions to African-American pride and ‘female self-assertion,’ and reached the pinnacle of her profession at a time when black women were fighting to be seen and heard on their own terms.

It is impossible to give a true representation of such an expansive life and career in such a short space – she made hit after hit, possessed a phenomenal voice, presence and ability to persevere and excel against the odds. She remains quite simply a consummate artist: Both iconic – in black American culture, in mainstream culture and in music worldwide – and deeply human.

Otis Redding – A Career Cut Short

December 10th 2017 marked the 50th anniversary of soul singer Otis Redding’s death in a plane crash at the age of just 26.

Just three days earlier, Redding had recorded what was to become his biggest hit. He knew the song would be huge – he remarked to his manager,

I got it. This is my first million seller.

He was right. The song (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay, was released in January 1968, shortly after Redding’s death. It shot to number one on the R&B charts in early 1968 and, from March of that year, topped the pop charts for four weeks. Dock of the Bay became Redding’s most popular record, selling more than four million copies worldwide. It went on to win two Grammy Awards: Best R&B Song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.

Otis Redding wrote the first verse of the song while he was on tour with the Bar-Kays in August 1967. At the time, he was staying on a houseboat at Waldo Point in Sausalito, California. Just weeks earlier, he had played the Monterey Pop Festival – a performance that was to go down in history. As the tour continued, he would scribble lyrics and ideas on napkins and hotel paper. In November 1967, Redding joined producer and guitarist Steve Cropper at the Stax recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee, to record the song.

Cropper described the origins of Dock of the Bay in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air in September 1990:

Otis was the kind of guy who had 100 ideas. […] He had been in San Francisco doing The Fillmore. And the story that I got he was renting boathouse or stayed at a boathouse or something and that’s where he got the idea of the ships coming in the bay there. And that’s about all he had: “I watch the ships come in and I watch them roll away again.” I just took that… and I finished the lyrics. If you listen to the songs I collaborated with Otis, most of the lyrics are about him. […] Otis didn’t really write about himself but I did. Songs like Mr. Pitiful, Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song); they were about Otis and Otis’ life. Dock of the Bay was exactly that: “I left my home in Georgia, headed for the Frisco Bay” was all about him going out to San Francisco to perform. [Source: Wikipedia]

Sitting in the morning sun. I’ll be sitting when the evening comes. Watching the ships roll in. And then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah.

It was one of those rare moments when an artist knows immediately that he’s just created a masterpiece.

Together, Redding and Cropper finished the music and lyrics of (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, and the song was recorded on November 22nd 1967 with additional overdubs on December 7th. The emotive yet restrained vocals are backed by Cropper’s clean guitar playing – but the song was never finished. There’s a whistled tune heard before the song’s final fade. According to Cropper, Redding had “this little fadeout rap he was gonna do, an ad-lib. He forgot what it was so he started whistling.”

After the recording session, Redding’s tour continued. There was a television appearance to make in Cleveland, followed by a concert in Madison, Wisconsin.

But on its final approach to Madison on December 10th, 1967, the private plane carrying soul-music legend Otis Redding crashed into the frigid waters of a small lake three miles short of the runway, killing seven of the eight men on board, including Redding.

According to Ben Cauley, founding member of the Bar-Kays and the sole survivor of the crash, the band usually travelled “by station wagon and U-Haul”. If the distance to a gig and the dollars from it added up, they would load up the plane with Redding’s friend, pilot Dick Fraser.

In a 2007 interview in Memphis, Cauley says,

Something I’ll never forget about that plane… The first of the last three nights we were together, we got to the airport about 5:30 or 6, and we asked Dick if we could crank it up so we could get warm, but he said the battery was low.

Cauley said the band didn’t think too much of the comment, and the plane made the trip to Cleveland without incident. Next morning, they took off from Cleveland to get to their gig in Madison, Wisconsin. Redding sat beside Fraser in the cockpit. Cauley and Redding were back-to-back. Four other members of the Bar-Kays – guitarist Jimmy King, organist Ronnie Caldwell, drummer Carl Cunningham, all 18, and saxophonist Phalon Jones, 19 – squeezed into the plane with their 17-year-old valet Matthew Kelly. Bassist James Alexander and vocalist Carl Sims couldn’t fit in, and took alternate transportation.

“We just talked as we always did on the plane,” Cauley says, ” Otis was talking about how he’d just cut a record and said, ‘You’ll hear it when you get back. We need to put the horns on it, so you’ll do that. That was the first time we heard about Dock of the Bay. That’s the last thing he talked about — how much he loved that record and that it’s something he’d wanted to do for a long time.”

Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay was released in its unfinished form several weeks later. The sounds of seagulls and waves crashing in the background were added by Cropper, who mixed the song after Redding’s death. Redding had requested these sounds to mimic those he heard while he was staying on the houseboat. Redding’s whistled verse became an indelible part of the now-classic record. The song became the first posthumous number 1 hit in pop music history, and the biggest pop hit of Redding’s career.

In the six months before his death, Redding had gone from one success to another. Aretha Franklin took her cover version of his song Respect to number 1 in the pop charts. His performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival had transformed him into an icon of the late 60’s counterculture. He was already a giant in the world of soul music, and during an era when the Beatles and Motown ruled the charts, he was beginning to gain recognition on a huge scale within the largely white mainstream.

Redding’s death was announced in the New York Times with only four column inches at the bottom of page 19, in which the names of the other musicians were listed. He was not yet considered a superstar, although his reputation among black audiences was enormous.

According to an article of 1968, hardly any of even Redding’s greatest fans realised he was only 26. The tragedy of his death was compounded by the shock of the discovery of his youth, a fact that makes his talent so much more extraordinary.


 

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