Amazing Grace: portrait of Aretha Franklin
Steven W. Justice
64×30, Oil on wood 2020
[Aretha Franklin] sings gospel from a place so deep an unbeliever will feel the presence of the divine. – Caryn Rose
Once upon a time, there was a celebrated black Baptist minister called C.L. Franklin, whose Migration Northward after WWII started in Memphis and ended in Detroit. To extend the reach of his infectious spoken/ shouted/ chanted/ sung messages, he made use of radio, recorded many LP record albums, and toured. His daughter Aretha toured with him when she was 12, playing the piano and singing gospel. At 14, she took her music outside the church and made her own records, which was fine by her open-minded father, who saw no divide between church music and secular music. He said, “It all comes from God.” The Franklin household was frequented by the likes of Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke, the Staple Singers, B.B. King, and Martin Luther King. (*Aretha sang at King’s funeral.) So, she was raised in an environment where there was no shortage of inspiration, and where there was no difference between moral justice and social justice.
She proceeded to blend the spirit with the body, the sacred with the sexual, to create soul music, recording twelve albums by the age of 25. She scored twenty #1 hit singles and earned eighteen Grammys in the process. Aretha was a strong, black feminist who was not shy about asserting herself. When she covered a song, she would re-sculpt it and present it her own way. She wore what she wanted and did as she pleased. It’s good to be queen, and better to be the Queen of Soul.
Aretha once brought Barak Obama to tears – she dropped her purse on his foot. Not true – she brought him to tears by singing “Natural Woman”. But she always took her purse with her, even on stage, and she always kept it where she could see it, like on top of the piano. You touch it, you die.
So, no Aretha Franklin, no Madonna. No Madonna, no Lady Gaga. No you, no me. For this, I owe you a great deal of gratitude. Isn’t grace amazing?