Today In Rock: Detroit Declares "Aretha Franklin Day"

Thursday, February 16: 2 p.m.
Posted by Rock Hall
Aretha Franklin has her day in Detroit

By February 1968, Aretha Franklin had established herself as among the world's premier recording artists, her genre-spanning recordings achieving commercial and critical acclaim, and appealing to mixed-race audiences around the world. The previous year had seen the release of I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You, her triumphant Atlantic Records debut produced by Jerry Wexler and recorded with an ace backing band at Rick Hall's Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The landmark soul recording included Franklin's righteous re-working of Otis Redding's "Respect," which rose to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, and the inspired candor and groove of the album's title track. That same year, Wexler and engineer Tom Dowd worked with Franklin on her sophomore effort for Atlantic, Aretha Arrives, which included the hit single "Baby I Love You," peaking at Number Four on the Billboard Hot 100. Less than a year later, in January 1968, Lady Soul arrived, featuring "Chain of Fools" and "A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)," the latter written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Both singles charted in the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10. It was in 1968 that legendary deejay Pervis Spann, "the Blues Man," ceremoniously placed a crown atop Franklin's head during a performance at Chicago’s Regal Theater, announcing her as "the Queen of Soul" – a moniker that remains undisputed. Her success and the subsequent adoration of a growing legion of fans set the stage for a momentous homecoming performance.

On February 16, 1968, Franklin led a stellar performance at Detroit's Cobo Hall. At the show, Detroit Mayor Jerome P. Cavanagh declared the date as "Aretha Franklin Day," while local disc jockey Martha Jean "the Queen" Steinberg – who helped host the event – proclaimed Franklin "everybody's soul sister." The evening also included the presentation of plaques and certificates from representatives of music-trade publications, to wit BillboardCash Box and Record World, who all recognized Franklin for her contributions and success in 1967. The packed crowd of more than 12,000 people loudly cheered for their Queen, and were treated to a lively 90-minute set from Franklin, who moved between her piano and charismatically owning the stage in a sleek, lime-green dress, her collar and hips wrapped in fanciful feather adornments, while sporting dangling globe earrings and a stylish updo. The Sweet Inspirations, which included vocalist Cissy Houston, backed Franklin that evening, delighting the crowd with soaring versions of "Natural Woman," "Respect" and many more from Franklin's impressive catalog.

Among the evening's many highlights was the appearance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had flown to Detroit to attend the concert and recognize Franklin with a special award from the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Franklin's father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was active in the SCLC, as well as a fiery, in-demand preacher famous for his impassioned sermons and singing voice. King and Franklin's father were friends and shared a mutual admiration fostered during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, making King's presentation to Aretha both personal and declarative, recognizing the female performer's role in defining African-American identity. Although he had laryngitis and could not speak, King's presence caused a stir. Rita Griffin of the Michigan Chronicle recalled of the moment Franklin and King shared on stage: "[King] never said a word, because he couldn't. But you could just feel the impact his presence had – just him being there... All 12,000 people in that room cared for him – you could feel it."

In the immediate years that followed, Franklin would release a remarkable body of material. Between 1970 and 1972 alone, she released five albums – Spirit in the Dark, This Girl's in Love with You, Live at Filmore West, Young, Gifted and Black, and Amazing Grace –that provided illuminating, poignant commentary on American life and culture – past, present and future.

Aretha Franklin is among the artists featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's Women Who Rock exhibit, on display through February 2012. Franklin was honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the 16th Annual American Music Masters



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