Musical Crossroads

The Queen of Soul: An Appreciation

The National Museum of African American History and Culture mourns the passing of Aretha Franklin, the "Queen of Soul." Her voice, one of the most captivating of her generation, was unrivaled and changed the landscape of American music. 

Franklin's first musical training came while singing gospel in New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit (her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was the pastor). She began performing professionally in her early teens eventually signing a contract with Columbia Records in 1960. During her time with Columbia, she recorded show tunes and standards. But, her career skyrocketed when she signed with Atlantic Records in 1967 and traveled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)."

By the early 70s, Aretha Franklin was a legend. Her voice defined the meaning of "soul." She distinguished herself from other singers by recording a wide range of styles, exhibiting a keen musical curiosity and bringing intelligence to her craft. Her distinctly beautiful voice had a rich tone and extensive range and could shift from soft to powerful with ease. Franklin's talents came together through her unique phrasing, her rhythmic variations, her dynamics, and her unparalleled tone. All drawn from her African American gospel roots. It was she who brought the melisma - singing a series of notes over a single syllable - into popular music.

Caption: Aretha Franklin, SCLC convention, Club Paradise, Memphis, Tenn., Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture © Ernest C. Withers Trust.

I accepted her title as the "Queen of Soul" readily, but I didn’t know what that meant until I saw her perform during the 1998 Grammy Awards. She used that setting to sing an aria from the Puccini opera “Turandot.” It was “Nessun Dorma,” one fiendishly difficult aria written for the male tenor voice and recently popularized by the Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. Stepping in at the last minute for an ailing Pavarotti, Ms. Franklin took his signature aria and transformed it into something all her own. Watching this truly astounding performance, I, along with the rest of the world, was transfixed.

"'The Queen of Soul' - Aretha Franklin - was waiting for her cue during ‘The Gospel Tradition: In Performance at the White House’ when I noticed her close her eyes in silence for a few seconds while standing in the doorway between the Green Room and East Room, before she was ready to begin her performance," recalled Pete Souza, who captured the moment for this official White House photo.

As I think about what Aretha Franklin means to the world, I think about the essence of soul singing. A common definition of “soul” highlights its connection to gospel music, to rhythm and blues, and some degree, rock 'n' roll; soul also is the fully surrendered embrace of the spirit, awash with unbridled emotion. If you think of soul that way, you begin to understand why people called Aretha Franklin "The Queen of Soul."

Franklin’s legacy is not limited to her command of a musical genre or her popularity at any given time. Her voice put people in touch with something deeper, connecting them to their own emotions and feelings often ignored. The precision with which she conveyed the emotional power at the heart of any song was, quite simply, a work of art.

The way she used her voice always made us feel, no matter what the song. If the essence of music lies in its ability to help us to know our authentic selves and transcend to new heights, then it was Aretha Franklin who taught us how to listen and to make ourselves whole again.

By Dwandalyn Reece, Curator of Music and Performing Arts, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

As I think about what Aretha Franklin means to the world I think about the essence of soul singing.

Dwandalyn Reece

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