Saying goodbye to the queen of soul.
One of the most extravagant ways of praising a vocalist is to say she can “sing anyone under the table.” There’s a sly hint of humor in that phrase, and some terror too: in it, we recognize the physical power that a voice can have on us, a power that no other instrument can quite match. Encountering a great singer, we may all of a sudden find ourselves in a state of Pentecostal submission—cracked wide open, with all the feelings flooding in. The absurd image of the listener cowering under the table evokes the fear a singer can strike in us, especially in those who would rather keep their emotions unstirred. It also suggests that such a singer suffers no rivals; the purifying honesty of her voice exposes inadequacy and insincerity in her midst, causing pretenders to duck for cover.
You could say that, for much of her five decades in the limelight, Aretha Franklin had all of America under that table. She was pop’s chief purveyor of ecstatic experience, an artist who inspired such rapturous praise so early in her career—in her twenties, she’d already earned the honorific that would follow her the rest of her life, “the Queen of Soul”—that you had to wonder how anyone could possibly live up to it. And yet, from the beginning, her journey had the makings of an all-American myth. As the daughter of the enormously influential Detroit pastor Reverend C. L. Franklin, she was ensconced in the black church’s most elite circles, and at a young age was taken under the wing of gospel powerhouses Clara Ward and Mahalia Jackson. Though her style would continue to evolve through multiple decades and genres, the core of her art—a tireless striving toward transcendence—was solidified by her teenage years. In recordings from the 1950s, in which she sings such standards as “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood,” you can hear the urgency of someone projecting her voice all the way into the afterlife.
No singer lets us experience the voice as a thing with mass and weight and temperature—as something that resides in a body—quite like Aretha did. Hers is dense with information, hot to the touch. And anyone who has fallen in love with her has had to assimilate the fearsomeness of her favorite gauntlet-throwing effect: a shriek that, if it weren’t so masterfully executed, would seem to test the boundaries of beauty and decorum. During her tenure at Columbia Records, when producer John Hammond was trying to mold her into a stately jazz chanteuse, the shriek was inserted sparingly, as an almost whimsical inflection that might breathe life into Tin Pan Alley and supper-club tunes. But in the late 1960s, when she transferred to Atlantic Records and finally broke through as a down-home soul singer, this earth-shaking wail made its way onto almost every song, serving as the main event not just in the climaxes but also in the verses. It became an artistic signature with the help of her best-known hits, like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools,” and could adapt itself to all kinds of emotional contexts, signaling pain and indignation on the one hand (as in the hair-raising second half of 1968’s “Good to Me as I Am to You,” performed entirely at the top of her belting register), erotic abandon on the other (1967’s “Dr. Feelgood” or 1974’s “With Everything I Feel in Me”).
That shriek—clarion and beautiful and sinus-clearing—is probably what has hooked the majority of Aretha diehards. It’s certainly the thing that made me realize, as a teenager coming to her discography in the late 1990s, that I’d never heard a voice like hers before. In contrast to contemporary R&B singing, which for the past several years has tended toward a kind of narcotic smoothness, you can sense the labor that went into producing these notes—they are utterances extracted from deep within. It’s no wonder she was revered as a goddess among music fans in so many historically marginalized communities: the way she would ride up the decibel scale was a means of asserting a presence that couldn’t be denied or revoked, of turning suffering into a sound that not only seduced but also intimidated those who would seek to silence someone like her.
But power, volume, and range are not prerequisites for being a sublime singer; depth and nuance are. And so it’s the subtleties in an Aretha performance that demand you lean in, listen closely, and hang on every syllable—and that ultimately break your heart. It’s the tender way she slips between her dark alto register and her wistful head voice in the Quincy Jones–produced masterpiece “Angel,” lifting us gently out of despair. It’s the melisma she embroiders into the last verse of “Today I Sing the Blues,” a rapid string of notes that compresses her anguish into a shapely pattern. It’s how, when singing the line “when evening falls so hard” in “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” she hits the words “so hard” with a blood-vessel-popping intensity that purges the song of its sentimentality, and assures the addressee she knows just how hard it can get. And it’s the mischievous way she manipulates the grain of her voice, bringing it forward and then smoothing it out, as though the voice were offering glimpses of its own molecular structure.
For all the uncontainable wildness in her sound, the technical control she wielded in her performances conveyed that she would never be anyone’s fool, no matter how submissive the attitude or pitiful the situations described in her lyrics. Of course that control changed with time. The piercing, bell-like clarity that was at her disposal throughout the 1960s eventually gave way to the thinner, airier, lower-set voice we’ve heard since the ’80s, a more limited instrument that she nevertheless turned into another platform for her genius. It’s a rare privilege to hear a singer’s atrophied voice elevated to a thing of beauty by sheer musical intelligence. After Aretha’s tessitura began to change dramatically in the 1980s, there started to be more and more thrillingly candid moments on her records, in which she allowed herself to go husky and unapologetically shrill on the high notes—you could almost hear her asking, “Why the hell not?” At the same time, the bottom end of her voice grew richer and more captivating, and her riffs took on a baroque complexity that flaunted the unerring precision of her ear. On one of her most unjustly neglected late-career gems, the 1998 album track “The Woman,” she spends a two-and-a-half-minute outro scatting up a storm, luxuriating in androgynous low notes with the same confidence she once brought to high ones.
As a musician, Aretha was always much more than a singer. She was a piano prodigy, having mastered the instrument with no formal training. She had a preternatural gift for interpreting other people’s songs (as she did with everyone from Otis Redding to the Beatles to Simon & Garfunkel), restructuring and embellishing them until you couldn’t tell they weren’t hers. And she could be a wonderful songwriter in her own right—the self-penned “Think,” “Day Dreaming,” “Call Me,” “Rock Steady,” and “Spirit in the Dark” rank among her very best work. But of course it’s her voice that made her a transformative, even spiritual figure. When I listen to her now, two decades after first discovering her, it amazes me that the vocal cords—tiny little membranes that vibrate and strike each other during the process of phonation—should be the site of so much pain, glory, and sanctified feeling. Like no other singer in the history of recorded sound, Aretha knew how to carry her whole life on her voice. We’re lucky she was generous enough to carry ours as well.
Andrew Chan is web editor at the Criterion Collection. He is a frequent contributor to Film Comment and has also written for Reverse Shot, Slant, Wax Poetics, and other publications.