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From the Stars and Stripes archives

Aretha Franklin, First Lady of Soul

Aretha Franklin, onstage in Germany in 1968.

TED ROHDE/STARS AND STRIPES

By SID SCHAPIRO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 6, 1969

WHAT'S ALL this jazz. about soul?

Well, Lady Soul has the nitty-gritty answer.

For, there is no denying that gospel gut-singing moved uptown with Aretha Franklin and her penetrating wail of truth. When this chunky, buxom young woman belts 'em out in her passionate, sock-it-to'em style, she gives of herself so abundantly in song that this Baptist minister's daughter is almost a religion among her fans.

"I sing to people about what matters," says 5-foot-5 Aretha, the undisputed queen of "soul," that sound and feel in popular music that sociologists may try to define but that a listener knows instantly, joyously. "I sing to people who accept it like it is. I express problems: There are tears when it's sad and smiles when it's happy."

THIS EXCITING singer has credibility, what she calls the ability to "make other people feel what you're feeling," explaining:

"It's hard to laugh when you want to cry. Some people can hide it. I can't. When I sing it doesn't come across fake."

Aretha's power to move an audience was illustrated in a recent television special called "The Singers." She was filmed putting on a show in a Detroit auditorium -and her voice reached out and seized the audience.

Some began moving forward trying to reach the stage and, as one press account put it, "this wonderful being who was transmitting so much good feeling."

Without a trace of boasting, she says: "its simple for me, I mean, for some people, I guess feeling takes courage. When I sing, I'm saying, `Dig it, go on and try, Yeah, Baby, dig me.' It's something creative, something active. It's honesty."

ALL ARETHA has to do, she claims, is be herself and sing from the soul. When she sings, she's all crusader.

"If that audience thinks you're giving honestly and openly, they react that way themselves," she says. "You have too be honest and open and fair. I always move toward the edge of the stage to get to the audience. If they don't happen, I don't happen."

In a concert at New York's Philharmonic Hall last October, Aretha brought the house down. This "happening" ranged from the earthiness of "Dr. Feelgood" to the loftiness of "We Shall Overcome."

She leans her head back, forehead gleaming with perspiration, features twisted by her intensity, and her voice - "plangent and supple" - pierces the packed hall.

Oh baby, what you done to me ...
You make me feel, you make me feel like a natural woman.

"Tell it like it is," her listeners exhort, on their feet, clapping and cheering. She goes into a "holiness shout" - a writhing dance derived from gospel services, all the while singing over the tumult.

FOB THESE soulful sounds that project feeling and emotion Aretha Franklin has been acclaimed everything from Earth Mother to the Natural Woman to Lady Soul. She's set the recording industry so spinning that she has swept every trade magazine poll (Billboard, Cash Box and Record World) as the top female singer.

Her first Atlantic single, "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You," became an immediate smash. Soon after, she hit the best-seller charts with four more million-selling singles : "Respect," "Baby, I Love You," "Chain of Fools" and "Since You've Been Gone" - becoming the first female singer ever to earn five certified gold records. "Aretha Franklin: Soul '69" is her latest album.

Not only did her records - singles and albums - take off, but she became a top attraction at college concerts, began lining up guest appearances on prime-time television shows, and started getting offers for glossy nightclub bookings. And new, there's another concert tour of Europe in the fall and a proposed tour of Japan and Australia next year.

MEMPHIS-BORN, Detroit-reared Aretha got her start singing gospel songs in her father's New Bethel Baptist Church. So Aretha, whose late mother was also a gospel singer, comes by her gospel style honestly,.

Her father, the Rev. C. L, Franklin, a barnstorming evangelist, has recorded same 40 albums of sermons. The best gospel singers sang at his Detroit church and Aretha heard them all - Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Lou Rawls and Sam Cooke,

"Clara knocked me out," Aretha remembers. "From then on, I knew I wanted to sing." At 10, she was a soloist in her father's choir. At 13, she recorded two singles that climbed near the top of the gospel charts. At 14, she was singing on her father's revisal tours.

Cooke was a decisive influence on the young Aretha's style. "I learned a lot from Sam," she says. "He did so many things with his voice - so gentle one minute, so swinging the next, then electrifying, always doing something else."

FOUR YEARS later, Aretha began to give serious thought to singing blues.

It was a difficult step for her to take after her many years of gospel singing. But Miss Franklin, who plays the piano almost as well as she sings, couldn't be pinned tight in a blues bag. A mixture of good oldtime gospel, rhythm and blues and sometimes rock were all her forte

By the time she arrived in New York in 1960 at 18, the singer had made something of a name for herself in gospel circles, having traveled nationally with her father's group and recorded songs in the gospel vein.

"Her growth as an artist in the last eight years has been a matter of integration of elements out of her background," a music critic noted. "No longer is she merely a gospel singer, experiencing and interpreting material from the vantage paint of the church and her god; she has come into life, become secular in outlook without losing the ardor, the reverence of the pilgrim. She deals a mixed hand in performance — the sound is church and blues; the songs are sex and a smattering of salvation; the groove, deep yet thoroughly contemporary."

WHEN ARETHA appeared at the plush Fontainebleu in Miami Beach earlier this year, it was a new "first" for the First Lady of Soul - playing there after two straight years of purely concert work. For the first time she played "The Beach" - the evangelist of a new musical gospel spreading soul to Collins Avenue.

Other blacks have played "The Beach," but Aretha is special. She is Black Soul - suctioning the gut out of her soul-shackled brothers and sisters.

For the first time in the swank La Ronde room, the audience was fully integrated, with the blacks numbering as high as 75 per cent on some nights during Aretha's two-week engagement.

In programing her musical selection, she tries to build the mood: by having "one sang flow into another."

At the La Ronde, she opens with the unsoul tune of "No Business Like Show Business" - "because there isn't" she explains later.

"The audience is stiff - with the food and propriety," an observer of the La Ronde scene chronicled. "People applaud politely for the first few tunes, appreciatively but not turned on. The major-domo wanders through the ringside tables, clapping during a number and urging others to join in."

ARETHA perches on a stool and starts in on the blues instead of Broadway, wiping the sweat from her forehead "to let them know she is working at it."

"You're reaching us, Baby," a man calls.

"Play your song, girl," suggests another voice.

Aretha starts rocking with "Baby, Baby, Sweet Baby," then issues a plea, "Can you help me out on this one?"

"Yeah!" responds a voice in the audience - and Aretha is getting ready to belt out her heart, launching into "Try a Little Tenderness."

The momentum builds until no one is sitting still. And, when Aretha starts into "Say a Little Prayer for Me," bodies and arms start twisting at the tables and you could swear someone is going to come forward to be saved.
 

Aretha Franklin, onstage in Germany in 1968.
TED ROHDE/STARS AND STRIPES

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