Aretha Franklin and Annie Lenox at the 25th Anniversary Concert, Oct 30, 2009
Sep 16 2020

Guest Post


Anatomy of Soul: Aretha Franklin’s Revolutionary Body of Work is written by Dr. Daphne Brooks. Her essay explores the history of our first female Inductee to the Hall of Fame, Aretha Franklin.

The first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the artist ranked as the #1 “Greatest Singer of the Rock Era” by Rolling Stone magazine, and one of the most-awarded female singers in GRAMMY history, Aretha Franklin earned her legendary status in American culture as a result of her virtuosic vocals that radicalized the aesthetics of pop musicianship. No one before Aretha, not the great Ray Charles, not even her idol and friend Sam Cooke, had successfully crossed out of the church and onto the pop charts with such emotionally complex and emotionally potent sound, one that boldly yet gracefully yoked together sanctified and secular forms of deeply expressive singing. 

 The seismic shift in late twentieth-century popular music culture brought about by her Atlantic Records debut, 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, tells us something not only about what kind of an artist Aretha Franklin had become at that crucial stage of her career but also what kind of a musical artist America was perhaps yearning for as multiple movements—Civil Rights, Black Power, feminist, and anti-war activisms—continued to surge and flow to the beat of history. Numerous critics and scholars have, of course, celebrated the social symbolism of her “Respect” as a trenchant anthem of resistance and self-determination for the marginalized. But in focusing only on that house-wrecking performance (in which Otis Redding admiringly declared that Franklin had “stolen” his song) we risk overlooking crucial other dimensions of the sonic revolution that Aretha Franklin was launching and the dynamic artistic road that she had paved for herself up through that moment in time. 

Born as the fourth of five siblings on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised in Detroit by renowned Baptist minister C. L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin was a self-taught church pianist, a child prodigy who eventually began to sing as well by her early teens. She began recording gospel music at the age of fourteen under her father’s wing, and in 1960 and at the age of eighteen she moved to New York, making the now famous leap to signing her first major recording contract with Columbia Records.

As the boxed set Take a Look: Aretha Complete on Columbia makes clear, the vocalist who emerges during this era is someone who is marvelously mature for her years. We hear an Aretha who is deeply engaged with the aesthetics of black women’s musical histories, confidently conjuring Bessie Smith’s juke joint cadences, Ma Rainey’s rebellious swagger, the gospel intensity of her mentor Clara Ward, as well as the elegance and interpretive invention of jazz greats like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and Dinah Washington, the latter to whom she would devote an entire tribute album.

Soul sits at the crossroads of the church and the juke joint

Dr. Brooks

The Columbia years would thus serve as a musical laboratory for a young artist who was experimenting with performing many sonic colors, many emotional registers, many ways of articulating modern black womanhood all at once in song. She was, at that point, laying down the seeds and in training to become one of the major architects of the genre that would later be known as “soul.” 


Soul—a form of music that takes the ideological elements of the blues and the problem of black human struggle and transforms that struggle into a combination of spiritual and sensual release— the sacred and the profane. It sits at the crossroads of the church and the juke joint. Soul both generates the power to transcend the ache of one’s material condition, and yet it also remains resolutely of this earth and this lifetime. 

By the time that Aretha Franklin had left Columbia and partnered with the hugely influential R&B producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, she had built up a musical repertoire that asserted her performative sophistication in genres that ranged from the American songbook to hard bop. Artfully, she had woven together a variety of pop sounds with the golden thread of gospel’s affective convictions and existential questing—all this she brought to the mic down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, during the historic 1967 recording session that would yield a single song: “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” 

It was a session that enabled Aretha to make ingenious use of her rich and nuanced vocal body. Tapping into her formidable powers as both a singer as well as an instrumentalist (Wexler insisted she return to the piano bench; Aretha happily complied) she delivered the kind of rich details in musical character— pulsing moans, soaring wails, simmering near-whispers, sharp declarations, suggestive utterances—that had been missing from American pop and especially the popular music of women artists. 

I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)

In the string of hits that would come in the months and years to follow, songs such as “Do Right Woman (Do Right Man),” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Baby, I Love You” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” and “Call Me,” Aretha innovated a style of soul artistry that conveyed the complexities of emotional interiority. As pop music critic Ann Powers has observed of her, Aretha’s abilities as a vocal artist and performer are like that of “a great method actor” who slips into the emotional landscape of a song in order to fully inhabit it. In this way, she made the depths of African-American as well as women’s humanity both audible and legible at a moment in time when both of these groups were struggling not just to be heard but to be recognized as fully desiring subjects and citizens. 



"(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman"

Aretha Franklin performs "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at the 1995 Concert for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

"(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman"

Aretha Franklin performs "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at the 1995 Concert for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Hers was a sound that demanded new ways of listening and that galvanized the creation of new cross-racial communities of feeling in popular music culture. We can hear Aretha mounting bridges “over troubled water” time and again in her music, using her gifts in candid storytelling to cross over on the pop charts, to gather together fans from rock and roll as well as R&B communities (as she did so memorably during her groundbreaking concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1971). The anatomy of her soul sparked the kind of cultural revolution that is lived in and through the body. It is perhaps akin to what the black feminist critic Audre Lorde would call an “erotic” endeavor. In her classic 1978 essay “Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde famously argues that the erotic is a way to “share deeply any pursuit with another person”; it is “the open and fearless underling of [one’s] capacity for joy, a reminder of one’s own capacity for feeling, and a way of fighting oppression from the inside out. It gives us the power to pursue genuine change.” 

As not just a vocalist and pianist but also a songwriter (having co-authored hits like “Dr. Feelgood,” “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Think,” as well as her own “Call Me”), an arranger and eventually a producer of her own work, Aretha Franklin pioneered a kind of palpably distinct musicality of and through her body that connected to the masses and that demanded them to listen to pop music differently—to recognize the complexities of her (musical) selfhood and to cultivate their own forms of meaningful and embodied connections with her music. 

Listening to Aretha, then, we bear witness to the foundations of her soul music revolution to bring diverse peoples together in a kind of humanist collectivity that, at its core, celebrates the sound of black womanhood as a site for radical social, spiritual, and philosophical possibilities.

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