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Music

Aretha Franklin Was the Ultimate Sound of Soul

When it’s all over, who or whatever survives will perhaps look back at whatever it is we’ve done with this planet and all we’ve been given, and they’ll come across the voice of Aretha Franklin. Hopefully, before they get to where our society finds itself today and decide that we deserved whatever it was that ended us, this entity will have a chance to hear “Chain of Fools,” “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” And in the final analysis, they will know, as did we, that nothing compares to the Queen of Soul.

The sound of Aretha Franklin was, and is, the sound of soul itself. It’s not an easy thing to describe without hearing it, just as it would be difficult to explain pain to someone who’s never experienced it, or chocolate to a person unlucky enough to have never tasted its rich, bittersweet flavor. Until we had it, we never knew what we were missing; now that Franklin has passed on, it’s something we appreciate and honor like never before.
There will be much said about Aretha Franklin in the weeks, months and years to come, after she died Thursday following a battle with pancreatic cancer. And there will always be reverence for this Memphis-born black woman’s remarkable life, which she insisted on living on her own terms—something she was able to do through her undeniable beauty and talent, indomitable will and an unbelievably powerful voice she wielded as effortlessly as the finger she sometimes waved through the rarefied air that surrounded her.

She could demand attention with this flawless and fiery voice—equally strong, vulnerable and beautiful at once. She also had a reputation for commanding the respect she would perhaps become most famous for singing about. “Respect” was not just a song but a huge song, because it was clear through the fearless confrontation in her voice that she meant what she sang. More than just a great vocalist, Aretha Franklin was one of history's greatest singers because she could be taken seriously, simply by singing a song. It made her biggest records much more real than any token "soundtrack" of a certain time or place in American history. It was just pure authentic backbone, backed up by harmony, melody, rhythm and feeling, delivered with the kind of confidence you can only have when you know in your heart and soul no one can do it better.
When you hear “Respect,” you realize you, too, should demand it from whoever is keeping it from you. When you listen to “A Natural Woman,” no matter your gender, you understand—if only for a few minutes—what it’s like to be loved and to love in return. And when you hear what can be done with a relatable story of love, told through a simple three-chord progression in “Chain of Fools,” you know that you’re not the only one who has loved foolishly, and that there’s a connection to humanity that can only be explained by those who have been linked to a lost cause. In her instantly recognizable voice, there was an innocence preserved and protected by an awareness of self, and the reality of life as only she could sing it.
And Aretha did not hide from her gift; she claimed it, cultivated it and was vigorously competitive as a vocalist. You could put her on a stage, in front of a national audience, with a whole lineup of respected divas spanning the spectrum of sound, and she’d not only deliver but dominate. She could take a song written for another recording artist and instantly claim it as her own for all time. Hers was a voice that shook with authentic feeling and a profound urgency, like that of her friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even when speaking in interviews, she was careful with her tone and choosy with her words, knowing that she held not just attention but court amongst her contemporaries.

This was the power of one lady, whose name translates to “beauty,” “virtuous” and “excellent” in Greek and Arabic. Her musical legacy will be difficult, if not impossible, to match because it is defined not simply by sound or vocal power, or the study of music theory, but by the soul from which it comes, and the souls to whom it speaks.
When you hear “Respect,” you realize you, too, should demand it from whoever is keeping it from you.
Whatever she gave us, whether duets with the likes of Lauryn Hill or George Michael, or live performances at the Kennedy Center in front of powerful global dignitaries, we can define it as pure soul. We may not know what the human soul looks like, but we discovered it had a sound and could find the place within from which it came when Aretha sang, decade after decade. From the Southern girl who lovingly/longingly sang “Day Dreaming,” to the American woman who wasn’t too proud to admit “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” on to the international diva who could bring the leader of the free world to tears with a voice that will live long after her death, Aretha Franklin was—and is—musical royalty. Like few others throughout history, she had the ability to project the strength of humanity, and the unwillingness to go silently into the nights and days ahead. Long live the Queen of Soul.

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