Roger Ebert Home

Natural Woman: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin

The world lost actual royalty on Thursday, August 16th, 2018, when the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, passed away at age 76. Our own Odie Henderson already paid tribute to her in his eloquent obituary, but we wanted to open the floor to a few more thoughts from our team, including Chaz Ebert, Nell Minow, Brian Tallerico, Omer Mozzafar, B. J. Bethel, Steve Erickson, Peter Sobczynski and Matt Fagerholm. Words can’t really do her justice, but we will try.



Ms Aretha Franklin, the undisputed Queen of Soul, was the singular musical influence in my life. Not the single, as in only, but the most important. I have great admiration for many singers such as Sara Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Esther Phillips, Lena Horne, Whitney Houston, Lady Gaga, Minnie Ripperton, June Anderson, Amy Winehouse, Diana Ross, Adele, Dionne Warwick, and Barbra Streisand but Aretha’s singing helped me to discover the music of the heartstrings. Whether she was crooning "Natural Woman," "Dr Feelgood," "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Brand New Me," "This Girl's In Love With You," "Chain of Fools,"  “Nessun Dorma” or “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” her brand of soul seeped deep into my psyche, taking me through various experiences of love, as she was never timid about letting you know whether she was deliriously in love or woefully in pain, or on some platform in between the two.

There is a certain kind of down-home blues called “gut bucket” blues, not only because you feel it in your gut with each strum of the guitar but because it sounds like it is wrenched from the guts of the singer, from his or her firsthand experience with no money for rent and the baby needs shoes, and your love done got up and gone. Aretha’s songs, though infused with elegance, came from her gut. There was no artifice. Her soulful moans were a direct translation whether you were wondering about love, falling in love, discovering sex, nursing a broken heart or telling a man to give you some Respect. She was that natural woman, who struggled with her weight, and her clothes but never with her affection for family and friends. When she performed professionally she sometimes demanded to be paid in cash and was known for carrying it around in her purse within her eyesight on stage. But that was her way of being assertive, for standing her ground and making sure she didn’t end up penniless like a lot of the entertainers who were taken advantage of. Whether in love or in life, her songs came from deep emotions and a myriad of deep experiences.   

But she was also a multi-talented original, so her songs also came from her heart and soul, beginning with the gospel songs she sang in her father Reverend C. L. Franklin’s church in Detroit.  Her rendition of “Amazing Grace,” brings me to tears each time. And the miracle is how well she seamlessly blended the gospel and the secular, finding the divinity in each.  She took this blend of gospel and secular on the road with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. to help with the struggle for civil rights. She didn’t back down from confrontation. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” became a clarion call both for the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement.

I loved Aretha and what she stood for and the news of her death leaves me heartbroken. On the few occasions when Roger and I ran into her at events, I was surprised to find out that she could be shy. Or so she told me. Maybe that was part of her need for privacy; part of her Diva shield. She would get us alone and kick off her shoes, and she became playful and warm and funny. She could give as good as she got, and she loved teasing and catching up on the latest goings-on. It is so hard to say goodbye to someone who feels like they have been a part of your life for so long, even if you know them mainly through their music. I am just “saying a little prayer for her” and thanking her for all of the deeply soulful heart connections she engendered. And I am sending out the most heartfelt condolences to her family. Heaven has a new Queen.


When I was a teenager in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, I worked in a book store called Metro News Center (it was mostly magazines and newspapers, but also had a healthy supply of new books). I can still remember the first time Aretha Franklin walked through the front door. There was no mistaking who it was. She wasn’t the kind of face you didn’t place. It was as if actual royalty had entered the building. A hush fell over the whole store that felt almost supernatural, as if the world made way for her wherever she went. When I think of the very concept of a celebrity being “larger than life,” I think of that encounter—the Queen of Soul wandering the aisles in a book store and the world stopping to watch her do it. It was unforgettable—although I’d pay a lot of money to remember what books she bought.

The world didn’t just lose a generational musical talent, it lost that increasingly rare degree of celebrity and superstar that can truly justify the title Queen.


She was that older sister who knocked down walls with the sheer will of her personality and the power of her voice.


I won’t try to express the greatness of Aretha Franklin with superlatives.  Even the most extravagant would not do her justice. I will just say that beyond that voice, her magnificent instrument, the match of any musical genre or mood, beyond the inerrant musicianship that could take a melody, twist it, stretch it, toss it to the moon and back again without losing a brilliantly shaped note, was her grace as a person and a performer. When she demanded respect, when she told you to think, when she sang, “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” when she stepped in at the last minute to substitute for the foremost tenor of the world, Luciano Pavarotti, to sing his signature aria, Nessun Dorma, everyone who was lucky enough to hear her understood that her real greatness came from the honesty of a true natural woman.


Aretha Franklin's title of "Queen of Soul" was more than befitting the greatest singer America ever produced. She defended her reign in numerous feuds with other singers and celebrities. But one wonders if she took the title so personal because she was a Queen without a King.

Sam Cooke was more than inspiration for Franklin. The two met when she was 12 and he was in his early 20s.

Cooke died in 1964 after being shot by the manager of a hotel, an incident that still hasn't been wholly investigated and one he family - 50 years later - still wants re-opened.

Cooke was 33 years old when he died but was already dubbed the "King of Soul" for a string of songs and hits that may never be repeated, and a voice that expressed a joy and inspiration that was quite opposite of the hard life he lived.

"A Wonderful World," "Saturday Night," "Twistin' the Night Away," "Chain Gang." were a few of his hits, songs that were all staples of pop and soul music. His talent was equaled only by Franklin.

On Franklin's hit album "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You," she covered two of Cooke's songs. "Good Times," and his hit "A Change Is Gonna Come" as the final track on a record that began with "Respect." Pitchfork named the record one of the 10 best of the ‘60s, Rolling Stone had it in a list of top 100 records of all time. Cooke's inspiration was all over it.

What the two could have done if they had both been blowing up the charts at the same time has always been a question hanging in my imagination.


When I went out for breakfast this morning at a Manhattan cafe, the radio was tuned to a station playing '80s and '90s R&B and hip-hop. The DJ spoke in between songs about Aretha Franklin's death today and her immense importance in American culture, but at least while I was there the station couldn't be bothered to play any of her actual music. But the artists they did play - Mary J. Blige (one of her most obvious descendants), Anita Baker, even a male singer like Prince - would have sounded much different without the bravery and swagger of her late '60s and early '70s music. "Respect" is just the beginning. Albums like SOUL '69, SPIRIT IN THE DARK and YOUNG, GIFTED & BLACK offer plenty of deep cuts, and a stylistic range that includes rock, jazz, blues and gospel, although she usually just gets summed up as a soul singer. The kind of female African-American rebellion summed up by "Respect" isn't exactly absent from our culture, but it says something about our times that the attitude and struggle represented by her best music and public persona still seem very contemporary.


As was probably the case for a lot of people who share my age and general background, my first real exposure to the majesty of Aretha Franklin came from the silver screen. For my ninth birthday, my family went to go see “The Blues Brothers,” a film that I had been champing at the bit after having seen its production virtually take over the Chicago area the previous summer. During the first section, our heroes are jumping bridges, getting blown up, driving through shopping malls, getting smacked by nuns and getting redeemed by the power of James Brown and for a movie-mad kid like me, every frame of it was a delight. Then Jake and Elwood decide to step into a restaurant on the famed Maxwell Street to grab some lunch and, hopefully, their old guitar player and saxophonist. What they run into is a force of nature that not even the combined efforts of all the top visual effects artists in Hollywood could ever hope to equal—a pissed-off Aretha Franklin laying down the law to her husband, the guitarist, via a rendition of “Think,” the 1968 song that she co-wrote with her real life then-husband Ted White. Her performance was volcanic—a show-stopper in the best possible sense—and for the three minutes and change that she is singing, the film essentially shifts in tone from goofy musical comedy to grand opera. Even people who didn’t like the film as a whole—and such miserable creatures do exist—were blown away by that scene and many critics pointed out that one flaw in the film is that when Jake and Elwood leave with their former bandmates, they inexplicably neglected to bring her along as well.

As a result of that movie, I began looking into the R&B/soul legends who populated the soundtrack and whose careers were given a welcome boost as a result of their association with the film, Franklin chief among them. I will admit that there are other people who could better articulate the power of her voice and how it not only revolutionized the music world but proved to be a force of strength in the battles for civil rights and women’s rights. I am not even going to attempt to do that for fear of inadvertently sounding like a character out of a lesser Nick Hornby novel. I will, say, however, that she was an artist who well and truly gave her all with every performance. She could take a dumb song (I’m looking at you, “Freeway of Love”) and usually invest it with far more passion and energy than it deserved so that even the throwaway filler tracks had more life to them than the best efforts of most of her contemporaries. When she had the chance to work on better material—(“You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” to “Think” (which she would eventually perform in what would be one of the few highlights in the otherwise dire “Blues Brothers 2000”) to “Nessun Dorma,” the aria from Puccini’s “Turandot” that she famously performed during the 1998 Grammy Awards for millions of viewers, literally at the last minute, after original performer Pavarotti fell ill—the results were simply exhilarating. She may be gone now in the literal sense but thanks to her musical legacy, the power and presence that she demonstrated every time she stepped up to a microphone will never be diminished.


Some people have you at "hello." Aretha Franklin had me at "Think." Her performance of that iconic tune in "The Blues Brothers" was such an electrifying and hilarious showstopper that it made me a lifelong fan. I received a six-CD boxed set of her greatest hits for Christmas that I listened to throughout my childhood, amazed by the versatility of her genius. Three years ago, she made a surprise appearance at the Kennedy Center Honors, where she paid tribute to Carole King by bringing down the house with "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." President Obama wept, and I did too. Thank you, Aretha, for your limitless inspiration.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

La Syndicaliste
Good Burger 2
Faraway Downs


comments powered by Disqus