It is the rarest singer who not only eclipses an Otis Redding performance, but simply erases it from existence. And yet, ‘Respect’ is an Aretha Franklin song. It has always been an Aretha Franklin song — even for the two years between 1965 and 1967 when the only version available was Redding’s.
And Franklin was always the greatest singer in the world, from the moment she opened her mouth in 1956 and first put that voice to record. That voice, that storm cloud, looming on the horizon. She was 14, already a mother of two, her voice already several lifetimes old, singing gospel standards rendered ghostly by the cheap recording and the intervening decades.
She was the greatest singer in the world when putting out indifferent arrangements of other people’s songs (jazz standards and girl group hits) from ’56 to ’67. But the singer who everyone knows is the greatest in the world was born in 1967, when she moved to Atlantic and found a producer (Jerry Wexler) and a group of musicians (the great Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and her trusty Sweet Sensations back up singers) who could complement her style and, more importantly, keep up.
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The 10 albums linking 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You to 1973’s Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) is a run of classics matching or bettering similar peaks from Dylan, The Stones, Bowie and all the soul geniuses she strode alongside. If she never got the same auteur credit as any of those guys, well, let’s not pretend being a woman of colour had nothing do with it. The assumption was that she simply had the luck to be born a genius, that these songs just fell from her gilded throat as easily as breath, not that she possessed the vision and craft of those boys. And yes, she was born with a voice and an instinct unparalleled by any of her contemporaries — she filled in for Pavarotti at 20 minutes notice to perform ‘Nessum Dorma’ in 1998 and controls the piece as surely as she did ‘Wholy Holy’.
But she was a formidable bandleader, the best interpreter of song this side of Frank Sinatra, and the songs she created in that period are simply the peak, the defining statement of soul music, the sweet spot where stomping gospel meets aching blues meets earthy, loose-limbed groove. It feels spontaneous, loose yet sharp and organic — the band will hold a chord for little too long, instruments will come in a split second late, and Franklin will hold it together with perfectly timed improvisations.
You suspect there are a handful of other takes of ‘Do Right Man Do Right Woman’ and each would be completely different from what we heard. Ray Charles may have been the first to slow the blues down and add more melodic exploration and minor chords. Sam and Otis might have gotten there if they’d lived. James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder took it all somewhere different. Her acolytes — Gladys Knight, Ann Peebles, Patti LaBelle, Denise LaSalle, little wonders all of their own — may have matched her from song to song. But no one locked into such a sustained, rumbling groove for such a long time.
And no one else (Bowie and Madonna came closest) sounded as curious and comfortable with the styles that came to dominate pop after her revolutionary peak. They may not be the first I reach for, but her ’80s hits (‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’, ‘Freeway of Love’, etc) are assured and fun and a lot better than anything Ray Charles or James Brown were doing at the time. As late as 2014, she was delivering playful versions of modern classics like ‘Rolling in the Deep’, dancing around the limitations age had imposed on her voice with intelligence and wit.
That untamed quality of her voice combined with the steely control she exacted over it, is the reason no other popular singer will ever touch her. Like that storm cloud looming on the horizon, it could flash or erupt, or simply sit and radiate immense power. Songs like ‘Angel’ or ‘Soul Serenade’ would start soft as a kiss and end wild as a brush-fire.
Depthless suffering laced that voice, but never weakness, it always came from a place of power. Whether she was exasperated or exultant, sending you away or seducing you back, it was on her terms. And it’s hard to overstate the political impact of that power. ‘Respect’ became a feminist and civil rights anthem, not by design, but just by the limitless commitment and confidence, that imploring power. She lent into Afrocentrism and black consciousness in the early ’70s, and not just aesthetically — see her solidarity with imprisoned Black Panther Angela Davis, or her delightfully old school insistence, right up to 2017, that she be paid in full, in cash before she played.
But the real, final revolution was in her voice, that storm that stripped the leaves from the trees and gently deposited them to the ground. It reared up, was gone, and in its wake, we were battered, exultant, and clean.