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Like Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, Franklin helped bring spiritual passion into pop music. In 1961 she signed with Columbia, which tried to turn her into a singer of jazzy pop. In 1966 she switched to Atlantic, delved into soul, and began to flourish. Unlike many of her performing peers, Franklin took a strong hand in creating her own sound. Her guiding principle with producers, she says, is "if you're here to record me, then let's record me--and not you."
From the moment she sang Respect--that still famous call for recognition and appreciation--Franklin helped complete the task begun by Billie Holiday and others, converting American pop from a patriarchal monologue into a coed dialogue. Women were no longer just going to stand around and sing about broken hearts; they were going to demand respect, and even spell it out for you if there was some part of that word you didn't understand. As Franklin declares on Do Right Woman--Do Right Man: "A woman's... not just a plaything/ She's flesh and blood just like a man." Respect also became a civil rights anthem.
"For black women, Aretha is the voice that made all the unsaid sayable, powerful and lyrical," the writer Thulani Davis once observed. "She was just more rockin', more earnest, just plain more down front than the divas of jazz...Aretha let her raggedy edges show, which meant she could be trusted with ours."
But to hear Franklin's voice is to hear many voices: she sings not just for black women but for all women. Her pop hit Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves (1985) was a duet, notably, with a white singer, Annie Lennox. Franklin sings not just about the female condition but about the human one. I Say a Little Prayer (1968) and Love Pang (1998) are existential soul, capturing heartache juxtaposed with workaday life--brushing your teeth, drinking morning coffee. By singing of such things, she exalted the mundane, giving a voice, a powerful one, to everyday folks and events.
Franklin is not simply the Queen of Soul; she holds royalty status in the fields of gospel, blues, rock and pop as well. She is a sharp, rhythmically fierce pianist. And though she wrote a number of her hits, including the sexually brazen Dr. Feelgood, she also displayed brilliance in making other people's compositions her own, such as Curtis Mayfield's pop gem Something He Can Feel. Or listen to her 1971 gospel-charged take on the Simon and Garfunkel classic Bridge over Troubled Water. That water's a good deal more troubled when Franklin sings the song; even the bridge seems sturdier. She was the first female inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In person, Franklin is sly and funny, but has melancholy, magic-drained eyes. The twice-divorced diva's life has sometimes had the hard, sad stomp of a blues song: in 1979 her father was shot by burglars, fell into a coma and died. Producer Jerry Wexler once wrote, "I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows...anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura."