Critic's Notebook: Aretha Franklin, an Unstoppable Force Both Onstage and Off


Franklin sold more than 75 million records worldwide, according to one estimate, and had 10 Top Ten hits in a roughly 18-month stretch beginning in early 1967. A tireless road warrior, Franklin also sold millions of concert tickets, almost always arriving to shows in her custom bus (she had a fear of flying).

Franklin was a transcendent talent who owned her space in American culture and navigated her career on her own defiant and often difficult terms.

Singer Aretha Franklin died Thursday morning, leaving a gaping hole in the fabric of American cultural identity. But as the hagiographic remembrances pour in, let's be careful not to scrub the messier bits from her legend, for they offer us a keyhole into Franklin the person versus Aretha the persona.

As a persona, she was the "Queen of Soul," who galvanized people under the anthem of "Respect" and a string of other classics. But much of her life can probably best be described less as a battle to earn respect (of which she had plenty by the end of the '60s) and more as a battle for control, which was a cold war spanning her entire career.

Once she achieved a certain level of success, things happened on Franklin's terms. For example, even late into her career, she was known for personally collecting cash after her shows, which was a habit ingrained in her since childhood as a way to make sure she was getting paid from shady show promoters. She also did not fly on airplanes, which made international tours impossible and touring in general extremely difficult. She would often cancel shows for a variety of reasons, leaving fans and industry folks frustrated. (Frank Ocean seems to have carried on this tradition.)

Franklin always seemed to be in control — or struggling to snatch it back. She was not a bootstrapping success story. Instead, she came from a place of financial privilege but a troubled home life. Gospel was in her DNA. Both parents were particularly talented gospel singers, and music was deeply ingrained in her from the get-go. Gospel gave her the technical foundation — the melismas, the range, the depth — as well as the stirring, universal themes of liberation, empowerment, struggle and love that filled her greatest hits.

She smoothly segued from gospel to soul, and she'll probably always be associated the most with these two genres by the collective hive mind. Yet Franklin gave us way, way more. Her work spanned the diaspora of black music but went beyond that to cover most mainstream genres of American music: R&B, pop, soul, jazz, disco and even the lily-white world of opera. Her CV is daunting, bordering on ridiculously so. Her records sold millions, and they were sampled ad nauseam by hip-hop and house producers. She inspired imposters and several generations of vocalists. There are many Franklin records you will hear today and in the coming weeks, and most of them are fantastic.

But there is one artifact from Franklin's life that perhaps best distills who she was, and that is her mythic 1972 performance at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts neighborhood of South Los Angeles. The motivation behind this performance, memorialized in the album Amazing Grace, was a return to her gospel roots after becoming an international superstar. Maybe she was trying to convince her fans that she hadn't forgotten where she came from — namely, the black church circuit. Maybe she was trying to convince herself.

In the years leading up to this performance, Franklin had become increasingly public in her politics as she charted No. 1 hit after No. 1 hit. She knew Martin Luther King Jr. through her father and was helping soundtrack the civil rights movement. She famously offered to bail black communist icon Angela Davis out of prison. As famous and powerful as she became as a voice, she seemed determined to remain grounded in her community, and her concert in Watts felt like Franklin at her most dramatic and purposeful. This was her homecoming. 

The Amazing Grace album quickly became the best-selling gospel album of all time. The double LP features a spate of gospel classics and even her father, C. L. Franklin, giving a stirring mini-sermon. The first record ends with a near 11-minute rendition of the eponymous song, which itself is worth the price of admission.

This performance captures an icon at the absolute height of her powers, playing in a space — both literal and imaginary — that she absolutely owns. It's absolutely one of those records you must hear before you die.

Sydney Pollack and his film crew shot the performance, which they planned to edit into a feature documentary. Syncing issues created a technical mess, leaving the project abandoned for years. Producer Alan Elliott acquired the footage from Pollack a decade ago with the goal of trying to get this film a proper release, after it had been mythologized for what is now nearing half a century. But Franklin sued, determined to stop the performance from seeing the light of day. It may never be entirely clear why. The album was a smash and perhaps the defining document of her life and career if you had to choose one. After being granted an injunction that stopped the film from being screened at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival, she released a statement that read, in part "Justice, respect and what is right prevailed and one's right to own their own self-image." This resistance to the film's release has frustrated fans and fellow musicians alike for ages. But through this frustration you get a sense of the power and weight she slung.

Franklin was never afraid to risk being personally unpopular by sticking to her guns, whether you liked it or not. She was proudly and defiantly herself, and this performance — and the bizarre legal interventions surrounding the film — epitomize that.

Even though she's gone now, her voice cuts through time and will keep giving chills long past her death. Her recordings will bellow through human history, however long or short that will be.