This week saw a truly legendary artist get a truly legendary send-off as the funeral of Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, took place in Detroit. Over the best part of nine hours, many of the great and good of soul music took turns to pay tribute in a ceremony dripping in gospel and heart, befitting a lady who began her singing career in the church.
Of the numerous performances through the day from the likes of Chaka Khan, Jennifer Hudson, and Ariana Grande, none were better than Gladys Knight’s fusing of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ or Stevie Wonder’s rendition of his own ‘As’ that immediately followed, two legends paying impassioned tribute to a friend and peer.
Franklin was not simply a towering figure in soul music though. Her influence and the sheer power of her presence over many decades marks her down as one of the pivotal figures in music of the last 50-or-so years. Possessing a voice that could go effortlessly from a whisper to a scream and back again, she had the ability to infuse everything she sang with a sincerity of passion, and honesty of expression that many singers aspire towards but never reach. It was this ability to make any song she touched feel like a testimony, something which undoubtedly came from her gospel background, that marked her out as someone special.
She completely understood that singing isn’t just about being able to hit the notes, it’s about speaking to people, communicating something from deep within, so that whoever might be listening experiences a subjective truth which they understand as a part of their lives also.
When she sang “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me” it was powerful not only because, as a black woman in America, she was saying something that others like her needed, but also because anyone, anywhere in the world who found themselves in a situation where respect was lacking, could also feel the sentiment embodied in those lyrics, in the expression of that emotion.
Music is powerful stuff, and in the right hands it can elevate the spirit and the soul, and whether you believe in God, or don’t (and for the record I don’t) when someone with a talent as rare as Aretha’s sings, she takes you to church, insomuch as she makes you believe, truly believe, in the heady, transcendental affect a song sung in the right way can have on people. Rest in peace mighty lady, and thank you for gracing us all with your presence for so many years.