Aretha Franklin defined American music.
Other seminal singers — Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles—gave voice to this country’s joy and pain, but no one expressed that joy and pain with Aretha’s power.
Aretha’s power was rooted in history, both personal and cultural. She was a brilliant but troubled woman born in a brilliant but troubled family. She emerged during the sixties, a brilliant but troubled time.
Her most important producer, Jerry Wexler, called her “Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrow,” a handle she intensely disliked. She saw herself as happy and carefree.
Her self-styled mythology rejected any characterization hinting of psychology unrest or emotional mystery.
Yet it is mystery—the enigmatic and aching beauty of her voice—that makes her art so compelling.
She came from a long line of great divas—Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Etta James—who were all hauntingly mysterious. Their mystery only augmented their grandeur.
Aretha was nothing if not grand. She grew up a princess.
Her coronation as Queen of Soul in 1967 at age 25 was inevitable. Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, was himself royalty, one of the kings of African American Christianity and a progressive to boot.