In 1967 at the Regal Theatre in Chicago, a crown was placed on the head of a gifted, 25-year-old singer dubbed “the Queen of Soul”, in the most literal fashion.
The singer was Aretha Franklin and 50 years later, the Queen of Soul she remains.
At 75, Franklin is still carrying the torch, or a torch for the music she loves and a career that’s had its share of setbacks.
But Franklin doesn’t dwell in the past. Listening to her speak is like listening to someone who knows how the game ends, so self-assured at this point of her life that stories about performances or records are just great stories as opposed to milestone moments in a career that has captured 18 Grammy awards, sold over 75 million records and given life to songs such as I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), A Natural Woman and Think.
She has nothing left to prove, no record to set straight, but she’s grateful the time was taken.
“Those were just wonderful, wonderful days,” Franklin says. “Lovely artists I was on with, a lot of them Detroit artists but some Chicago artists, what a great time. Yikes, I wish we had that on film … ” she trails off, then deadpans, “But it’s basically the same.”
Franklin is capable of giving a truly electric performance, one that comes from the evolution of her craft and is also unteachable.
Live albums such as 1971’s Aretha Live at Fillmore West and its 2005 expanded version that includes saxophone virtuoso King Curtis, his band the Kingpins and Ray Charles capture the raw energy and fire Franklin could let loose on stage while maintaining control of her booming vocals. Amazing Grace (1972) displayed a mastery and understanding of gospel with a gentility that’s just as captivating.
Her 2015 performance of A Natural Woman in tribute to Carole King at the Kennedy Centre Honours silenced those who figured she was close to hanging it up.
She remembers the coronation show at the Regal, filling in blanks in the question before she’s even been fully asked.
“I was floored,” she says, almost laughing. “It was the last thing I expected when he (radio host Pervis Spann) walked out with that crown and actually put it on my head.”
When asked about the future of her genre in a musical era defined by bass-driven beats, club-ready singles and talk of the mainstream white-washing of soul, which often cites artists such as Adele and Sam Smith, Franklin pauses.
“I don’t know anyone that thinks of Adele as a soul artist,” she says. “Never have. To me, she’s more of a Top-40 artist. For a soul artist, it depends on what you’re singing and how you’re singing it. She’s more of a pop artist, more like [Barbra] Streisand. Soul music will live on, regardless. There will always be soul legends.”
Though Franklin announced earlier this year that she would be retiring from touring, looking to do one or two concerts across a few months, she’s not passing that torch any time soon.
“The future of soul music? Me, because I’m not quitting. I’m not sitting down.”
She’s just started on a collaboration with Stevie Wonder and says it will be some of the “best and greatest music you’ve ever heard”.
– Chicago Tribune