Aretha Franklin's voice was 'singing for its life,' and no voice had a greater impact on me than hers
Aretha Franklin performing at the New York Fall Gala in 2017. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
- Mathias Döpfner, longtime music critic and CEO of Axel Springer SE — to which Business Insider belongs — wrote about what Aretha Franklin’s music and legacy means to him.
- “An intensity and fragility that every second conveys — here is a voice singing for its life,” he wrote.
- Legendary soul singer Franklin died at the age of 76 last week.
In 1980, I played bass guitar in a band whose singer had an idol: Aretha Franklin.
In a one-roomed apartment in Neu-Isenburg, we listened non-stop to the “Aretha” album, which had just been released by Arista records. “United Together” was our song. For nights on end we reveled in the music, listening to and analyzing every nuance and every unexpected turn of phrase in the new and old songs of this epochal singer.
When Aretha Franklin toured Germany, I really wanted to see her live. However, appointments, other commitments, a tight money situation — basically, the usual stuff — meant I couldn’t make it. I didn’t know at that time that after 1983 — the year of her last European tour — Aretha Franklin would never travel back to the continent again, because she was terrified of flying.
When I heard that, I realized it is better to do what is important to you right away when you get the chance.
Aretha Franklin’s influence has always been a common thread wending its way through my musical life. Almost every time I have liked a singer or a song, Aretha Franklin had left her traces there. Most of my favorite Rhythm-‘n’-Blues and Soul singers learned their stuff from the great singer, who was born in Memphis but spent her life in Detroit.
Her formative power was diverse. On the one hand there was the underdog, a motherless child who grew up in extremely difficult circumstances fighting her way to the top with attitude.
Then there was the pride and the unbending will of the black artist who became a symbol of the civil rights movement, a symbol of Black Power.
And, of course, there was the champion of emancipation who gave the women’s movement one of their early anthems in 1967 with her subversive adaptation of Otis Redding’s song “Respect.”
Aretha Franklin singing “Respect”.YouTube screencap
And there is no doubt that Detroit would look very different today without Aretha Franklin. It would still be nothing more than the withered remains of an automobile city afflicted by early decay, instead of a biotope of black music that still flourishes today. It is true that Aretha Franklin never worked for Berry Gordy’s legendary Motown label.
However, Motown’s most famous artists — from Marvin Gaye to Diana Ross and right up to Michael Jackson — were greatly influenced by her. It is not a coincidence that the Motown Museum laid out a book of condolence when news of her death broke, playing nothing but songs by the Queen of Soul all weekend.
Even Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, the Detroit inventors of Techno, will be coming up with a track that their colleagues can play in Berlin’s clubs in honor of the Disco Diva.
Aretha Franklin, an authority figure for every musician, was and remains The Voice of Detroit. And above anything else, Aretha Franklin is The Voice. Her great impact as an artist is first and foremost down to her style and technique as a singer.
Deeply rooted in Afro-American church music, in Gospel and Spiritual, she greatly influenced, one could say practically created, Soul and Rhythm-‘n’-Bluessong, thus also influencing modern Pop music like no other.
Read more:13 of Aretha Franklin’s most inspirational quotes on music, respect, and love
And when Aretha Franklin is described as the most successful singer in Pop history, this is not primarily a reference to the statistics, although she released 131 singles, entered the Billboard Charts 88 times, and won 18 Grammys. What is meant above all when we talk of her success, is her influence as an artist.
In 1987, she was the first woman in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2008 Rolling Stone put her in the No. 1 position among the 100 best singers of all time. There were, of course, great female singers before her, like Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, or Dinah Washington, all of whom shaped the course of Pop music.
But Aretha Franklin had the most pupils, one of the reasons being that she did not shy away from the popular and commercial, instead seeking it out like a pastor who loves to preach most when the church is full.
The ease with which Aretha Franklin covers or skips octaves in “You Send Me,” the power of the top notes she belts out in “Think”, the sheer sassiness in the liberating cries of “Respect,” the deep velvety timbre of her voice in “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and the playful ease of her imaginative phrasing in “Jump To It” have influenced generations of female singers.
Anita Baker with her elegance and perfection. Patti LaBelle with her power and volume (at the end of the ’80s, she sang in Frankfurt’s conference center in front of tens of thousands without a microphone). Gladys Knight with her playfulness and soulful depth. Joyce Kennedy of Mother’s Finest with her sensual physicalness. And Chaka Khan, her top notes almost opera-like as she reached the highest tones.
But, unlike her colleagues from opera, her voice starts out as sharp as a laser beam, before slowly unfolding with an increasing vibrato. The greatest master in this technique is Aretha Franklin’s most successful and most talented pupil, Whitney Houston. “I Will Always Love You” is unthinkable without Aretha Franklin — and at the same time, the pupil almost surpasses her role model.
Aude Guerrucci/Getty; Business Insider
But the younger generation of Soul singers also has a lot to thank Aretha Franklin for. Amy Winehouse as much as the early Beyoncé (the later Beyoncé, who came across almost like an avatar on her recent German tour eludes comparison). Jill Scott as much as Erykah Badu. And even the generation younger than that, like Dua Lipa, Joss Stone, or Janelle Monaé, draw inspiration from Aretha Franklin, revealing what they have in common — for example, at the concert before President Barack Obama, where Monaé lifted him out of his chair, but only Aretha moved him to tears.
Why does Aretha Franklin touch us so much? Her life, her bravery, her courage, her virtuosity? I believe it is the Maria Callas phenomenon. With Callas, there is also a little of each of the aforementioned aspects. And, above all, the feeling we have that they are giving everything they have to every single tone. An intensity and fragility that every second conveys — here is a voice singing for its life.
There are two other artists who I similarly admire: Ella Fitzgerald and, above all, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, Funk, Hip-Hop and modern dance music. I wanted, more than anything, to see both of them live, as well. I missed both opportunities for similarly stupid reasons as I missed the Aretha Franklin concert. I dearly wished that it would be different with her, seeking again and again a chance to attend one of her rare concerts.
One-and-a-half years ago, I was speaking to the Director of German Rolling Stone and WELTabout Aretha. She mentioned the concert dates in Canada and New York. I planned my trip together with a friend. But then a more important appointment got in the way and I had to cancel. It was her last concert.
When Aretha Franklin died, the director send me a text message saying “We really should always do everything right away when the opportunity arises”.
Mathias Döpfner is CEO of Axel Springer SE, to which Business Insider belongs.
Disclosure: Axel Springer is Business Insider’s parent company.
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