Musically, Miss Ree took what she wanted, right from the beginning. “Of all the singers who have forsaken church choir stalls for smoky dens of jazz,” begins an Ebony article from 1964, “few have managed to fuse more ‘pure Gospel’ into their blues preachments than … Aretha Franklin.” History belies the point; her producers would discover that Aretha didn’t have to forsake or fuse anything; she was not required to pick a lane—secular or gospel, pop or soul. Her talent simply didn’t work that way. Her breakout moment, in 1967, after her move from Columbia to Atlantic Records, came after Jerry Wexler merely “took her to church, sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself,” as Wexler recounted in Craig Werner’s book Higher Ground. Thirty-one years later, when she stepped onstage at the Grammys to fill in for Luciano Pavarotti on a moment’s notice, her performance of “Nessun Dorma” was not the aria Pavarotti had popularized, or that Giacomo Puccini had written—it was hers, all hers.
Redding understated the case. Aretha hadn’t merely “taken” his song; she had put his thing down, flipped it, and reversed it. He thought he’d written a killer tune for himself about a man coming home from work and laying out what kind of deference he expected from a woman. It turned out, however, that he’d actually written an Aretha Franklin song about what she and hers were owed. It did not matter that he wrote and performed the song first. His was the cover version.
No profile of Aretha’s musical gifts was complete without a description of the degree of ownership she took over her work product. “She remained the central orchestrator of her own sound,” says Wexler in Higher Ground. “Aretha authorizes her own reality, and sometimes it’s hard to juxtapose that reality to the reality,” said Tavis Smiley, quoted in David Remnick’s lovely paean to Aretha’s influence in The New Yorker in 2016. “I always worked on my sound, my arrangements, before I went into the studio with a producer,” she says in Werner’s book.
That ownership extended to her image as well. When she decided to lose weight or quit her smoking habit, these were choices she made as a person in command of her career, not as a person striving for a break. Whether in her autobiography or in her press appearances, her narrative remained firmly in her own hands. Over the years, she crafted for herself an uncanny ability to be the focal point of any occasion, no matter how momentous. When the young President Barack Obama stood before America for his inauguration, he made history. But it was Aretha who presided over that moment, in her glorious gray-felt crown. Obama may have been sworn in as America’s first black president, but when Aretha stood to sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she was, unquestionably, its first Queen.
If human constructs could not contain Aretha, natural forces seemed to fare no better. The revelation of her 2015 performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors was not merely the extraordinary suppleness, clarity, and control in her voice at 73, an age when many vocalists have adjusted their most challenging songs to a comfortable register. It was the heightening sensation, as the performance unfolded, that she would take us past any limits we might have imagined for her, that it was not effort but mastery and will that drove her vertiginous ascent up the musical scale, that she would not miss a beat or let us fall, and that our role was not to marvel, but to revel.
Journalists chafed—as we will—at Aretha’s message discipline, the tight control she exerted over her story. But I believe she insisted on that control because she sensed the likelihood that her biography would be twisted into a familiar shape. Audiences love a hero’s journey—the story of a lifelong struggle against monsters within and without, culminating in a rousing triumph over adversity—and the version of that monomyth we foist onto black women is particularly suffocating. It would be so easy to impose that narrative onto Aretha’s life, to spin, again, the tale of a woman who struggled against domestic abuse, medical concerns, a phobia of flying, and assorted inner demons, channeling that pain into an ultimate victory. It would be just as easy to recast her efforts to diminish that narrative as a form of capitulation to struggle. But Aretha’s telling of her own story is a challenge to all of us to widen our imaginations. Is there any reason she shouldn’t have a story as rich as that of Steve Jobs or David Bowie, the story of a genius and visionary with a will to power, whose virtuosity and conquest are at least as interesting as her resilience, whose ability to push past boundaries and limits overweights her capacity to transform pain into poetry?