The Queen of Soul left us this Thursday, the 16th of August, leaving behind a legacy of tunes that made a cultural impact like no other woman could with her voice. Baré pays obeisance as we recount her contributions that made her such an endearing figure for not just African Americans, but women worldwide.
Coming Of Age: The Early Years
Her childhood years were filled with the trauma of her mother’s separation & untimely demise, all before the age of 10. She took to singing in the Baptist church her father preached at as a minister, getting encouragement & praise for her voice. Raised & mentored by her father, Aretha was all of 14 when she made her first album, a gospel record titled ‘Songs Of Faith’.
But life wasn’t easy for Aretha then. She was already an unwed mother of two kids at that age, judged by a largely conservative religious community. Her career would have halted right there if not for the strong women in the household - her grandmother Rachel & godmother Mahalia Jackson took responsibility for raising the kids, so she could go out & grow as an artist.
She moved on from gospel to a more secular career at the age of 18, trying out pop music by signing on to Columbia Records. Her husband volunteered to manage her as an artist. After years of struggle, she eventually quit Columbia & moved on to Atlantic Records, who helped her score her biggest chart-topping hits at the age of 24 with “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” & the legendary “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in 1967.
Success In A World Of Resistance
Aretha faced endless jealousy and competition in a world dominated by men. Within a year of her newfound success, she faced domestic violence & marital issues, choosing to break away from her marriage to Theodore “Ted” White. There was now a deeper meaning, an angst when she sang “You’re a no good heart-breaker, you’re a liar and you’re a cheat”, that women resonated with. It was a voice that transcended validation from a lover. Her music became more about empowerment & self-love for her listeners, lending strength, guidance & hope in a society filled with prejudice & violence against women.
She grew on, delivering more hits as a prolific artist & singer. Heartwrenching performances on tunes like the romantic ballad "Ain't No Way” continued to keep her in the limelight, while also delivering strong, self-empowering funky songs like "Think" and "Respect" that was inspired by the political environment of protest & change through 1960-70.
A Global Icon & Personality
Her voice became the embodiment of feminine strength, but her persona was more than just fierce. She was known for her eccentric sense of humour, with a great talent for mimicking singers of her time like Diana Ross & Sarah Vaughan. Her live concerts always had such a light moment or two, coupled with her extroverted persona on stage. Her outfits were outlandish, bold & wacky, way before the world had a Madonna or Lady Gaga. That was her style, unapologetically Aretha!
The world has always tipped their hat to her magical voice - starting way back to when she was 16. She frequently sang at rallies with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was given the honour to sing at his funeral in 1968. All the way down to her performance at President Obama’s induction in 2009, who quoted "American history wells up when Aretha sings." She has been called a civil rights champion, the voice of black America and a symbol of black equality by several eminent American speakers & organizations.
Her Life & Legacy
Though she struggled with health problems & weight issues throughout the latter half of her career, she still managed to keep her voice intact. Her performance at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors cemented her image in the public eye as a mesmerizing vocalist. She took creative risks with her live performances, unpredictably breaking off into improvisation without giving a hoot, a mark of her confidence.
Fun loving, passionate, outspoken, bold, strong & fierce - that’s what she’ll be remembered for. The Queen of Soul lives on with the music, the message & the memories!