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Aretha Franklin has been the voice of celestial wonder since she was 14. It was the voice of limitless passion, range, exuberance, pain and pleasure. Aretha’s music illustrated and exuded the mind-body connection in her singing; engaging the physical properties of the voice, the intellectual skills of reading and interpretation and the emotional control required to “preach” a narrative in song. Whether the roots were gospel, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, blues or soul, Aretha was the undisputed Queen.

Queen Aretha

That her passing occurs on the 41st anniversary of Elvis’ death is a chilling coincidence. They were two of the greatest icons of their genres and our generation. As with Elvis, Aretha melded a variety of musical styles and genres into her own unique brand. Both had roots in Southern gospel and began in Memphis. A preservation effort is underway to preserve the house at 406 Lucy Street where she was born. Aretha’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a Baptist minister who moved his family to Buffalo and then Detroit when Aretha was two.

Music was the Franklin family’s business. Her sister Carolyn wrote “Ain’t No Way.” Her sisters Erma and Carolyn wrote “Piece of My Heart,” which Aretha recorded before Janis Joplin did. All three performed as back-up singers on “Respect.”

After hearing Aretha’s recording of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Skylark,” Sarah Vaughan told Etta James she would never sing that song again.

Her impact on a Bar Mitzvah boy from Memphis was profound, and changed the way I listened to and HEARD music. I loved Dionne Warwick’s delivery of the Bert Bacharach song, “Say a Little Prayer.” Then I heard Aretha do it, and she took ownership. She made a habit of taking ownership of other people’s work. After hearing Aretha’s recording of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Skylark,” Sarah Vaughan told Etta James she would never sing that song again.

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Aretha’s earliest recordings were made in 1960 by legendary producer Johnny Hammond with the jazz piano great Ray Bryant. That drew notice from the jazz chronicle Downbeat, which named her the New Female Vocalist of the Year.

The great Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson played piano on several of her recording dates and performances. My father, Dr. Gerald Prosterman, did dental work on many great Memphis musicians and producers. When he died, I was told that Aretha had admired the gold star that my dad had placed in one of Jim’s front teeth. Calling that out brought smiles and comfort to the eulogy I delivered.

scott prosterman

Before becoming “The Queen of Soul”, Aretha displayed her musical versatility by recording albums in different styles, in an effort to appeal to a diversity of audiences. But what delighted omnivorous music fans, confused radio programmers, who were always overly anxious to categorize and segment artists into a definable niche. Aretha was too good for that, as was Elvis.

Aretha’s range went from pleading gospel, to soulful demands for respect to a sweet, lilting seduction and playfulness. Looks like that Great Big Band just got a new lead singer.

H. Scott Prosterman