Know this. Aretha Franklin, who passed away Thursday morning (Aug. 16) at the age of 76 in her Detroit home after a long bout with pancreatic cancer, left this world as the most celebrated vocalist to ever step foot on a stage. Choose the genre—from R&B and gospel to rock, jazz, pop and even classical music. Hell, she would have conquered country if given the chance. Ms. Franklin was the biggest star even amongst the immortals.
The National Treasure’s seemingly endless list of accolades are so long that they would take up the bulk of any tribute. But here are just a few: 20 Grammy Awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement; the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Award for Musicians given to her by family friend Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., just two months before his tragic death; the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and performances at the inaugurations for both President Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Sheesh.
We can even run through Ms. Franklin’s myriad of hits, which have propelled the all-world singer-songwriter to over 75 million records sold globally. Her eight consecutive No. 1 albums and 20 chart-toppers are now indelible riches of the great American songbook:
But the same passion, genius and dogged ferocity that made the New Bethel Baptist church prodigy and gifted daughter of influential minister and civil rights leader Clarence LaVaughn Franklin the most revered singer of her generation (it has been said that Aretha was touched by God; she showed the otherworldly ability to play piano at the age of 5 and recorded her first album at 14), also fueled Ms. Franklin’s reputation as a prickly, aloof and at times legendarily competitive spirit.
The trailblazing Queen of Soul was the Queen of Shade before the term ever existed.
I once wrote about Ms. Franklin’s infamous drive, an entertaining, at times bruising, tick that once saw her call out her contemporary, pop great Dionne Warwick on the carpet for what she deemed as a disrespectful statement made five years ago at Whitney Houston’s funeral. “’Ree’s not here, but she is here. She loves Whitney as if she were born to her. She is her godmother,” the soft-singing legend said after mistakenly announcing that Ms. Franklin was in the building when she actually wasn’t.
Auntie Re-Re wasn’t having it.
“She blatantly lied on me … fully well knowing what she was doing,” curiously blasted Ms. Franklin to the AP by phone during an interview, adding that she didn’t appreciate Warwick’s “damaging” statement. It was vintage Aretha Franklin, a glorious mix of regal how-dare-this-peasant annoyance and straight-from-the-D attitude. It’s even more laughable when you factor in that Ms. Franklin covered one of Warwick’s biggest hits, “I Say A Little Prayer,” and emphatically owned it like Jimi Hendrix brilliantly did with Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower”; so much so that the song’s iconic writer, Burt Bacharach, called it the definitive version.
From Roberta Flack and Gladys Knight to Diana Ross, Ms. Franklin routinely marked her territory against her would-be peers much in the same way the Rolling Stones gave Led Zeppelin the side-eye when they threatened their place as the world’s baddest (and notorious) rock and roll band in the late ‘60s and '70s, or when Nas made Jay-Z’s soul burn slow with “Ether,” or Mariah Carey’s subtle “I don’t know her” dragging of Jennifer Lopez.
There’s her long running, largely one-sided feud with the late supremely underrated Natalie Cole, who was dubbed the new Queen of Soul in 1976 after winning Grammy’s for Best New Artist and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for “The Will Be,” beating out Ms. Franklin, who had won the award eight consecutive years. “It's easy for a singer to sometimes pick up on another singer's sound, but that's just copying,” she said of Cole in a 1977 Jet interview. “I think Natalie's doing a fine job but in my estimation she's just a beginner.” Cut, print.
No, Ms. Franklin wasn’t simply channeling her inner DIVA. Over the years she has publicly spoke positively of younger headlining acts like Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, Adele and Alicia Keys. And she has been effusive in her praise for the three deified era-defining artists who left us all too soon: Michael Jackson (“A very kind and sensitive young man who never gave less than 150% when he hit the stage."), Whitney Houston (“One of Whitney’s favorite songs was ‘Yes, Jesus Loves Me.’ And if Jesus loves you, what is more important than that?”) and Prince (“He was music to the max…”).
When you hear Aretha Franklin offer a hilarious low-key diss of Taylor Swift, who she framed, after watching the stadium superstar performance, as “OK, great gowns, beautiful gowns," please understand that we are talking about a woman who fought her way through a segregated late ‘50s/‘60s society and entertainment industry (her history-making Time cover on June 28, 1968, was largely viewed as a watershed moment for an unapologetically Black artist who became a powerful voice for the civil rights movement) to become a musical giant on the same genre-defining platform as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles and James Brown. Ms. Franklin struggled early on in her career when Columbia had her singing show tunes and poppy middle of the road ballads. A much-needed jump to Atlantic Records in 1966 changed not just the course of popular music, it changed everything in terms how women were now viewed as serious artists beyond the jazz world. Her debut album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, channeled her gospel background to epic levels. The rest is herstory.
Ms. Franklin’s reverence was such that she is the only artist to ever outdo the immaculate Stevie Wonder on his own previously recorded composition. But there were lean years as well. During the high-flying late ‘70s disco era, Ms. Franklin struggled mightily. By 1980, jazz-rock act Steely Dan quipped of the singer in their song “Hey Nineteen”: “She don’t remember the Queen of Soul.” Again, the competitive giant wanted to prove all the naysayers wrong. And she did, delivering the gold, Luther Vandross-produced, 1982 comeback album, Jump To It. She topped that with the platinum pop hit "Who’s Zoomin’ Who?" winning yet another Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. No shade needed.
When a new generation of ‘90s R&B sirens started to excel by using hip-hop as a backbeat, Ms. Franklin didn’t hate on the burgeoning scene. She booked studio time with Lauryn Hill and delivered another hit, 1998’s “A Rose Is Still a Rose.”
Yes, it’s easy to fall down the Aretha-throwing-shade rabbit hole. We chuckle at the time Ms. Franklin strutted on stage with a full length fur coat, PETA be damned, boldly tossing it during an epic performance of “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” at the 38th Kennedy Center Honors as tribute to songwriter Carole King. President Obama was brought to tears. The GIF of Ms. Franklin laying her purse on the ground and nonchalantly walking away is pure BLACK TWITTER JOY.
And when it was announced in March of 2017 that rapper Nicki Minaj had bested Ms. Franklin’s 40-year chart record, racking up the most Hot 100 Billboard entries with a total of 76 (the achievement included guest features of all things), we all gave a bless-her-heart smile. Because we knew that Aretha Franklin’s greatness remained unmatched. When you can fill in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and perfectly nail an opera standard, you should be expected to be treated like true royalty.
Salute to the Queen of all Queens. Rest well.
Photo: Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images