Twenty years ago at the 1998 Grammy Awards, the unsinkable Aretha Franklin did what, for many, may have been the unthinkable. She filled in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and performed the aria “Nessun Dorma” from the Giacomo Puccini opera “Turandot.”
This wasn’t just the equivalent of Celine Dion stepping in for Barbra Streisand at the 1997 Oscars or Faith Hill covering for Whitney Houston at the Academy’s request in 2000. This was the Queen of Soul tackling classical music.
It was one of those hold-your-breath-and-then-lose-it moments. The fear that she couldn’t possibly pull it off was followed by relief, then astonishment, then pride, because she did. Franklin brought the house down and the entire audience up to their feet for what would go down as one of the most memorable performances in Grammy history.
Sadly, there will be no more unforgettable performances from Franklin. The 76-year-old singer died on August 16 in Detroit after a long illness, bringing to a close a career and life that influenced pretty much every female singer (and quite a few male ones) who came after her and transformed many (like the late Dusty Springfield) who came before her.
It’s hard to imagine there would have been a Natalie Cole (who was touted as the next Aretha after she emerged in the mid-’70s), a Chaka Khan, a Whitney Houston, a Mariah Carey, a Mary J. Blige, and a Beyonce without the antecedent of Aretha Franklin.
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When she released her breakthrough 1967 single “Respect,” an Otis Redding composition that he originally recorded, it was like the history of R&B stopped and started in that very moment. One of music’s first feminist anthems, forceful and in-your-face where Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” was tentative and, well, respectful, it introduced a new type of R&B smash. In the process, it heralded the arrival of a new kind of R&B singer, one who could appeal to white audiences and move them without compromising her blackness and selling her soul.
The hits that followed provided the cornerstone of the genre of which Franklin was crowned queen: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” and “Spanish Harlem” were all number-one R&B hits that crossed over into the pop Top 10, proving that Franklin’s talent and appeal transcended genre and race. Her effect on young black women is unquestionable, but without Franklin, would we have Madonna, Christina Aguilera, or Kelly Clarkson?
Is there a female performer whose influence has spanned as many decades? Would there have been “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy in the ’70s, “Brass in Pocket” by The Pretenders in the ’80s, “Girl Power” in the ’90s, and “Independent Women” by Destiny’s Child in the noughties, if Franklin hadn’t demanded “Respect” in the ’60s? In 1999, VH1 counted down the 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll. To no-one’s surprise, Franklin, who in 1987 had been the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, came in at number-one. In the nearly two decades since, she’s remained perched atop that list.
But she was so much more than a singer. Although Franklin was known primarily as one of music’s premiere vocalists, she wrote or co-wrote many of her biggest hits, including “Think,” “Rock Steady,” and “Day Dreaming.” She was also a virtuoso pianist whose gospel-infused playing can be heard on many of her singles. Her tremolo-filled piano intro on her cover of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” rivals her singing for sheer soulfulness.
Ah, yes, the soulfulness. That was the foundation of Aretha Franklin’s legend, and Ray Charles aside, popular music has probably never had a more soulful and gifted interpreter of song. Franklin didn’t just cover a hit. She seized it and took ownership of it. She may not have written “Respect,” but the song will always and forever belong to Aretha. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was Simon & Garfunkel’s biggest hit, but for many fans, the song’s author, Paul Simon, co-owns it not with Art Garfunkel, who sang lead on the Simon & Garfunkel version, but with Aretha Franklin.
Her commercial momentum slowed down in the mid- to late-’70s, but after signing with Clive Davis’s Arista Records, she enjoyed an ’80s comeback that was on par with the ones Tina Turner and Cher launched that decade.
Occasionally, she catered to trends, but whether she was singing alongside George Michael on “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” or Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves,” or covering The Rolling Stones “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” for a Whoopi Goldberg movie, Franklin never veered from her trademark soulful aesthetic.
The hits stopped coming and the new releases became rare around the turn of the millennium, but Franklin refused to retire. At 73, she made then-U.S President Barack Obama weep when she sang “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, and she continued to tour and perform until earlier this year when she cancelled a series of concerts, citing health reasons.
The shows must go on had seemed to be Franklin’s mantra for so many years, and finally they stopped completely. The music, though, kept playing and continues to do so. There may be no more “Nessun Dorma” moments for Franklin or for us, but thankfully, her voice will live forever.