No one could've taken the crown she wore for 50 years; her musicianship was unmatched in her time.
In 1967, at the Regal Theater in Chicago, Aretha Franklin was coronated. Before a concert there, local DJ Pervis Spann placed a crown on her head and named her Queen of Soul, as her version of Otis Redding's "Respect" had taken America by storm a few months prior. Its attendant album, "I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You," was selling like hotcakes, and even non-singles like "Dr. Feelgood" solidifying their place in the country's pop music firmament.
Usually when honorifics like this are given to artists, there's a sense of temporality to them — particularly in music, where youth is a valuable currency and the idea of discovering "the next big thing" is a tantalizing promise. But Franklin, who passed away Thursday at 76, was different. Her voice, which balanced grit and grace while scaling octaves with a Superman-like alacrity and flaunting impeccable technique, was a signal that anyone looking to take her crown would have to put up a pretty good fight; her underrated musicianship and seemingly bottomless resolve solidified the odds in her favor no matter who the opponent.
Franklin was born in Memphis and grew up in Detroit, the daughter of a preacher and a vocalist. She came up singing in the church, where her musical talent blossomed. She learned to play piano by ear, and her first album —"Songs of Faith," released in 1956 — was recorded at New Bethel Baptist Church, which her father led. She began touring early, and eventually moved into secular music.
"Aretha heard a song once and played it back immediately, note for note," the gospel singer and reverend James Cleveland told David Ritz in "Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin." "We always knew that she possessed a different kind of talent. That's the talent they call genius. You can't learn it. You just have it."
Musicians who observed Franklin throughout her career agreed. When she visited Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record with the renowned Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section for Atlantic Records, her musicality and presence, as well as her innate knowledge of groove, blew the seasoned session players away, as Matt Dobkin's 2006 book "I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You: The Making of a Soul Masterpiece"recalled. "After everybody heard her sing 'You're no good, heartbreaker,'" musician Dan Penn told Dobkin of the session during which she met her backing musicians to record her debut Atlantic single "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)", "she had five instant fans."
As David Remnick reported in a 2016 New Yorker piece, jazz great Sarah Vaughn told her peer Etta James that Franklin's version of the Hoagy Carmichael ballad "Skylark" made her wary of ever nearing the song again, for fear of being shown up. Producer Jerry Wexler once played Franklin's version of his song "Respect" for its writer, the soul legend Otis Redding, and Wexler later told her biographer, Dobkin, that Redding was "jovial" when he said, "Looks like that little gal done took my song."
Franklin would go on to "take" a lot of songs over the years — her stunning version of "Amazing Grace," from the 1972 live gospel album of the same name, stretches the song to its limits in the name of the divine, while her post-disco update of the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes" lets her flaunt her place in the soul pantheon.
But, as any casual viewer of "American Idol" or the singing-competition shows that arrived in its wake knows, simply having a good voice isn't enough to build a sustainable career. It needs backup, which Franklin had in large supply.
Her resilience shone through in her vocal performances, her pro-civil rights stances, which resonated both in her music and in gestures like her offer to pay activist Angela Davis' bail), and the way she would fight tooth and nail to protect what she saw as her legacy. For example, Ritz was so frustrated with the put-on-a-happy-face direction in which she wanted to take in her 1998 autobiography that he released an unauthorized book 16 years later; "Amazing Grace," the documentary of that 1972 live gospel album, has been bogged down in court for decades. Her innate musical knowledge was apparent in her unique vocal phrasings, subtle lyric shifts, and gravity-defying runs, not to mention the way she incorporated jazz, blues and other strands of American music into her gospel-fueled soul.
The "church-as-conservatory" ideal was put into resounding practice at the 1998 Grammy Awards, when she was a last-minute replacement for Luciano Pavarotti on the Puccini aria "Nessum dorma." She nailed it — of course she nailed it — after listening to the aria on a boombox.
From her earliest recordings to her extended 2016 performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Ford Field, Franklin showed audiences how her voice reflected one American ideal. It was a melting pot where any style of music was welcome, as long as it was ready to be greeted by her sheer vocal power and keen knowledge of how to make even the most pedestrian song into a rousing anthem.
Maura Johnston is a writer and editor who teaches at Boston College. She has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Time, Billboard, and Rolling Stone.