Arts critic Joe Dziemianowicz notes the Queen of Soul left her mark on him — and many.
Nobody did it better.
The Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, who died at home in Detroit on Thursday, is gone at age 76 after a long battle with cancer.
But her music, fighting spirit and passions for her beliefs in equality and feminism live on in our hearts and minds — and ears.
Like many singers, Franklin found her glorious voice in church. She would go on to wrap her four-octave instrument around 100 Billboard Hot R&B hits, influencing countless other singers, and winning 18 Grammys and receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom along the way.
Not bad for a Memphis minister’s daughter.
Hits like “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools” made her the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Those songs, and what she stood for, also got her invitations to sing at the inaugurations of three US Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who wept hearing Franklin sing “A Natural Woman” in 2015 at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C.
That was Franklin’s magic. She dug deep and left a mark. And she did it for five decades.
In 1967, when she released her version of “Respect,” the song became a call to arms and cause for action for in both the women’s movement and the civil rights movement.
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” she spelled it out plainly. “Find out what it means to me.”
A year later she sang at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Democratic National Convention.
She was dedicated to her beliefs throughout her life, which was filled with personal demons. She battled obesity, alcohol and smoking.
But she soldiered on.
I was fortunate enough to see Aretha Franklin just once in performance. It was in 2012 for a memorial at Juilliard celebrating the late composer Marvin Hamlisch (“A Chorus Line,” “The Way We Were”), which was put together by Barbra Streisand and featuring Liza Minnelli. All three divas performed.
Franklin sang Hamlisch’s power ballad “Nobody Does it Better,” from the 1977 James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me.”
Seated 20 feet from her, I still get goose bumps recalling the sound of her voice, the range, the depth, the control, the enormity. It was like the Earth opened up and something immense, shining and gorgeous rose up.
Looking back on it, and knowing now that Franklin was already dealing with pancreatic cancer, makes the moment all the more stunning.
Toward the end of the song, Franklin lovingly and playfully tweaked a lyric. “Marvin, you’re the best,” she sang.
So was Aretha.
Former New York Daily News theater critic Joe Dziemianowicz covers theater, entertainment and lifestyle as a critic, writer and editor.
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