The Queen of Soul reigns supreme with a heavenly voice and terrestrial passion

  • Sisters and brothers, the subject of today's sermon is that light of our lives, the Queen of Soul, sister Aretha Franklin. Preach, Reverend!

    Now in the Scriptures, Luke 11: 33, we are taught, "No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden." Now, y'all know the queen got her start singing in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. People say she left the sacred for the secular, forsook gospel for pop. But, truth is, as her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, said, "Truth is, Aretha hasn't ever left the church!"

    Never left!

    Truth is, songs are her ministry. Her voice is her temple. Truth is, her light is shining!

    That's right! That's right!

    Can I get a witness?

    American music, like America itself, seems too democratic for any title to endure. Ask almost any rapper or alternative rocker if Elvis is the King of Rock, and all you'll get is a sneer. Michael Jackson likes to call himself the King of Pop, but we all know the true king of pop is whoever has the No. 1 album in a given week. All told, there's only one monarch in music whose title has never rung false and still holds up--and that's Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.

    Her reign has been long. Born in 1942 in Memphis, Tenn., she started recording when she was just 14. Since then, she has had 20 No. 1 R. and B. hits and won 17 Grammys. Her breakthrough album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967), was a Top 40 smash. Three decades later, after Motown, after disco, after the Macarena, after innumerable musical trendlets and one-hit wonders, Franklin's newest album, her critically acclaimed A Rose Is Still a Rose (1998), is another Top 40 smash. Although her output has sometimes been tagged (unfairly, for the most part) as erratic, she has had a major album in every decade of her career, including Amazing Grace (1972) and Who's Zoomin' Who? (1985).

    Her reign has been storied. She sang at Martin Luther King's funeral and at William Jefferson Clinton's Inaugural gala. She has worked with Carole King and Puff Daddy. The Michigan legislature once declared her voice to be one of the state's natural resources.

    But this isn't about accolades; this is about soul. This is about that glorious mezzo-soprano, the gospel growls, the throaty howls, the girlish vocal tickles, the swoops, the dives, the blue-sky high notes, the blue-sea low notes. Female vocalists don't get the credit as innovators that male instrumentalists do. They should. Franklin has mastered her instrument as surely as John Coltrane mastered his sax; her vocal technique has been studied and copied by those who came after her, including Chaka Khan in the '70s and Whitney Houston in the '80s.

    And Franklin's influence has only grown in the '90s. The dominant divas of this decade--Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton--are all, musically speaking, Sunday-school students of Aretha's. The queen still rules: early this year Franklin co-starred in a Divas Live benefit concert on the cable channel VH-1 with some of the most popular young female singers of the '90s, including Carey and Celine Dion. The younger stars were blown offstage by the force of Franklin's talent.

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