(AP) - Aretha Franklin, Barack Obama once said, would be one of the musicians whose records would accompany him to a desert island
, “for she’ll remind me of my humanity, what’s essential in all of us. And she just sounds so damn good”.
No other musician, the then-president said, “embodies the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll – the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope … American history wells up when Aretha sings”.
But could the Queen of Soul finally be stepping back from her grand piano? After a career of more than 50 years, the woman widely held to be the greatest soul vocalist of the postwar era announced this week that she was planning to stop touring.
“I must tell you, I’m retiring this year,” the 74-year-old told the Detroit TV station WDIV Local 4, saying she wanted to spend more time with her grandchildren before they left to go to college. First, though, she will record an album part-produced by Stevie Wonder to be released in September, about which Franklin said she felt “exuberant”.
Stepping back from performances was bittersweet, she said. “This is what I’ve done all of my life.” But she added: “I feel very, very enriched and satisfied with respect to where my career came from and where it is now.”
And well she might. In more than five decades as a soul and R&B superstar, Franklin has won 18 Grammy awards, sold more than 75m records, sung at three presidential inaugurations (for Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter), and influenced generations of musicians across soul, R&B, gospel, pop and rock.
In 2010, Rolling Stone named her the greatest singer of all time (“a force from heaven... a gift from God”); Bob Dylan wrote a poem praising her; Otis Redding, hearing her 1967 version of Respect (which he had written), conceded ruefully: “She done took my song.” She remains the female soloist with the most Hot 100 entries in history, above Madonna, Dionne Warwick, Beyoncé and Diana Ross.
The youngest of four children of a well-known preacher, CL Franklin, she was born in Memphis in 1942 but grew up in Detroit. There she was exposed to soul and jazz royalty: Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald visited the family; Dinah Washington gave Aretha and her sisters singing lessons. Her father was a close friend of Martin Luther King.
But it was not an easy life. Franklin gave birth to two children while still a young teenager and went on to have two more; she would marry twice, both ending in unhappy divorces.
Franklin begun performing by opening for her father’s preaching engagements and was signed by Columbia records in 1960, though it was not until she moved to Atlantic in 1967 that she became hugely successful, releasing a cascade of hits that included Respect, Chain of Fools, I Say a Little Prayer and the self-penned Think and Rock Steady.
Though her popularity faded in the era of disco, an appearance in the Blues Brothers movie in 1980 and pop collaborations, including 1987’s I Knew You Were Waiting with George Michael, brought a renewed wave of fans. Having developed a fear of flying, she toured only where she could travel by bus, but continued to release albums, including a collection of “diva” cover versions in 2014. Franklin’s performance of Adele’s Rolling in the Deep on the David Letterman show was watched millions of times within a few days of release.
“There is hardly any artist alive who has not been influenced by Aretha – I can’t think of anyone who hasn’t been moved by her struggle, her work, her music,” said Kanya King, founder and CEO of the Mobo awards. “To us, Aretha will never retire because anyone who loves black music will always cherish the raw emotion and history of the music she has brought us within our souls. That said, I can’t wait for her final album to come out; how amazing will that be?!”
The music writer Richard Williams said Franklin was rightly called the Queen of Soul. “There’s a kind of natural majesty to her in everything - in her voice, in her bearing,” he said. “Nobody has ever been more successful in making a direct connection from black American gospel music, the things that make that so emotionally powerful, to a general popular audience. When you hear Aretha sing you feel that full strength, and that’s what shivers you. Even when she’s singing a song that makes you dance, somewhere inside you are still getting that astonishing power.
“Her voice is still absolutely there and it’s hard to imagine that she won’t want to stand up in front of an audience or a congregation – because that’s what she turns an audience into – at some time in the future.”
And indeed, despite her vow of retirement, all may not yet be lost for those keen to see Franklin perform live. After the album release, she told the TV station, she would probably still do “some select things, maybe one a month”. “I’m not going to go anywhere and just sit down and do nothing. That wouldn’t be good either.”
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