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Aretha Franklin’s “royal persona” commanded respect

The late singer’s legacy, in the words of Etta James, Barack Obama, and Tavis Smiley.

Aretha Franklin was a reminder of “what’s essential in all of us.”
Noam Galai/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

To quote Barack Obama, “You can hear Aretha’s influence across the landscape of American music, no matter the genre.” In a letter to David Remnick for a 2016 profile of Aretha Franklin, Obama, who notably was moved to tears during Franklin’s rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors, wrote that she reminded him of his humanity — “what’s essential in all of us.”

Franklin’s singular influence as an artist is also underscored by the way other artists speak about her. Carole King, who wrote “Natural Woman” with Gerry Goffin, described hearing Franklin sing the song as, “a dream realized”; Billy Preston insisted that Franklin had earned the right to do as she pleased. “On any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you,” he said. “And you’ll know — you’ll swear — that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked-up country has ever produced.”

The fur coats that Franklin wore were, in part, recognition of that status. They helped her keep warm and make sure her voice was open, but they were also following in the footsteps of old gospel singers, for whom such coats were a way of saying, “I’ve earned it, now I’m gonna wear it.”

“The fur is part of the drama, the royal persona,” Remnick wrote. “When Franklin went to see Diahann Carroll in a production of Sunset Boulevard, in Toronto, she had two seats: one for her, one for the mink.”

But as Remnick noted, despite her strength onstage, Franklin wasn’t entirely invulnerable. Her 1999 autobiography (ghostwritten by David Ritz) read “like an extended press release,” as she took out any references to darker periods in her life. (The book flopped.) In the profile, Remnick described sitting with Franklin after a show, with the cash payment for the show on the counter in front of her: “She collects on the spot or she does not sing.”

“She saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off,” Tavis Smiley, a close friend of Franklin’s, explained. “There is the sense in her very often that people are out to harm you. And she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her.”

But today there seems to be nothing but admiration for Aretha Franklin, not least from the artists whose music she performed. Otis Redding stopped singing “Respect” after hearing Aretha sing it, as did Sarah Vaughan with “Skylark.”

In Ritz’s unauthorized biography of the singer, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin (2014), there’s a passage in which he describes Etta James’s recollection of the latter song. “I remember running into Sarah Vaughan, who always intimidated me. Sarah said, ‘Have you heard of this Aretha Franklin girl?’ I said, ‘You heard her do ‘Skylark,’ didn’t you?’ Sarah said, ‘Yes, I did, and I’m never singing that song again.’”