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The Niagara Blog:     Aretha Franklin - an American music icon, the "Queen of Soul"

Queen of Soul in action, photo by Mike Keenan

At the advanced age of 72, Aretha Franklin remains an American music icon, the "Queen of Soul" in the 60s, rated the top vocalist in Rolling Stone Magazine's "100 Greatest Singers of All Time," edging out another favourite, Ray Charles. Who can forget her performance, singing "Think" in The Blues Brothers movie starring Dan Aykroyd (Elwood) and John Belushi (Jake)? Up close in the "Front of Stage" section, with great glee, I watch her perform to a huge, appreciative, hand-clapping crowd at Artpark in Lewiston, New York, not far from where she spent a few years as a child in Buffalo.

She sings two sets, the second, a series of nondescript numbers and some rambling monologue about health issues, Buffalo etc., but the crowd doesn't care. Her encores includes the big hit, "Respect," appropriate and "Memories," which is not, because that song belongs solely to Barbra Streisand, and not even the Queen of Soul does it better.

Franklin began her career singing gospel at her dad's, (Minister C. L. Franklin) church as a child. She recorded a total of 88 charted singles on Billboard, including 77 Hot 100 entries and 20 number-one R&B singles, becoming the most charted female artist in the chart's history. Franklin also recorded albums such as I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Lady Soul, Young, Gifted & Black and Amazing Grace. In 1998, she won international acclaim for singing the opera aria, "Nessun Dorma," at the Grammys, replacing Luciano Pavarotti. Later that same year, she scored her final Top 40 recording with "A Rose Is Still a Rose."

In 1987, Aretha was the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was also inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. In August 2012, Franklin was inducted into the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Her celebrity led to visits by celebrities such as gospel musicians Clara Ward, James Cleveland and early Caravans members Albertina Walker and Inez Andrews as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. When Atlantic issued her version of Otis Redding's "Respect," it soared to number-one on both the R&B and pop charts and later became her signature song, hailed also as a civil rights and feminist anthem. In January 2009, Aretha performed "My Country 'Tis of Thee" at President Barack Obama's inaugural ceremony. Her voice has been described as being a "powerful mezzo-soprano" and she has been praised for her arrangements and interpretations of other artists' hit songs. In 2014, she was granted the honorary degree of Doctor of Arts from Harvard University for her contributions to music.

Aretha's success is amazing given that she had two children by age fifteen, and later had two more. And while performing at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, in 1979, her father was shot twice in his Detroit home.

The Rolling Stone 100 greatest performer's bio reads: "It wasn't her gospel training. Most young African-American singers get their musical training in church. Training can give you form, can give you tradition, can give you the cadence. When genius gets good training, it can expedite the process, but training isn't genius. Genius is who she is. "Respect" had the biggest impact, with overtones for the civil rights movement and gender equality. It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it's hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined."

Aretha Franklin at Artpark, photo by Mike Keenan  Aretha Franklin, Time Magazine - Sound of Soul  Aretha Goovin, photo by Mike Keenan  Franklin singing at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama

Mary J. Blige terms it, "You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing. Aretha has everything - the power, the technique. She is honest with everything she says. Everything she's thinking or dealing with is all in the music, from "Chain of Fools" to "Respect" to her live performances. And she has total confidence; she does not waver at all. I think her gospel base brings that confidence, because in gospel they do not play around - they're all about chops, who has the vocal runs. This is no game to her."

My personal favourite memory of Aretha is her arrival at centerfield via helicopter at a Buffalo Bisons baseball double-header many years ago. The entire stadium was soon rockin, and people were merrily dancing in the stands. Then as now, her music makes one feel happy and alive!

Never Gonna Break My Faith

Aretha Franklin - A Natural Woman

Artpark, located high atop the Niagara River Gorge in pretty Lewiston, New York, has a full schedule of events that can be readily accessed on its website at: http://www.artpark.net/ Since opening in 1974, it has served as a unique public park and space for art. Artpark offers a full spectrum of entertainment from productions of Broadway musicals, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and concerts by popular artists in rock and pop music in the Mainstage Theater to free and ticketed concerts in the newly renovated Outdoor Amphitheater. Artpark also offers art, theater, and rock camps for youth, and a variety of weekend family programs. The park also includes numerous hiking trails, nature sites, fishing docks and picnic areas. There's something for everyone at Artpark!

Aretha Franklin - Choose a Selection

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