In 1967, promoter Pervis Spann placed a crown on Aretha Franklin’s head and recognized her as the Queen of Soul. The accolade is easily justified. She has 112 charting singles -- more than any other female artist -- 18 Grammy Awards and 42 albums and has sold over 75 million records worldwide. In 1987, she became the first female to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2008, Rolling Stone named her the greatest female singer ever.
The awards and honors kept coming. In 2005, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which, along with the Congressional Gold Medal, is the highest civilian award. There exists a picture of her seated between fellow recipients Robert Conquest and Alan Greenspan, who look more suited for a funeral in their white shirts, ties and dark suits. Aretha sits in a fuchsia skirt and jacket, classy but expressive, wiping away a tear.
In 2015 she performed “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors and brought then-President Barack Obama to tears. After her performance, he said, “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll -- the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
She refused to fly for more than 30 years. That’s one of the reasons why, when she came to the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta on Nov. 8, 2014, I had to go.
I find my seat, SLA Q 1. It’s the last row in the next-to-last section, but there are no seats in front of me and it sits exactly in the center. The one section behind me was “heaven,” the segregated section and farthest from the stage. A short wall still separates it from the other sections, and it has its own bathrooms. An older, well-dressed gentleman seated to my left talks with me about having seen her back in the day at a club in Atlanta with only 300 people because “that’s the only place she could play.” Tonight, though, it’s all about unity.
There is no opening act. It is all Aretha with a 21-piece band, one member of whom she tells us is B.B. King’s cousin. Before she came to the stage, someone brought her purse and placed it next to the piano, a throwback to the days when Aretha held and collected her money upfront and in cash to avoid being ripped off by unscrupulous promoters.
Although 72 at the time, she looks, sounds and moves like a woman at least two decades younger. I can’t say how she compares to herself decades ago, but it is obvious she still has It. She paces herself, performing clusters of about three songs, going backstage while the band jams for a bit, and returning in a new outfit.
One of her outfits is an elegant white dress. She comes floating to us in a blizzard of sound, a cloud of regality -- a diva in the best and truest sense of the word. She takes us to church for about an hour and a half, running through her songbook of hits, classics, covers and surprises, singing and playing piano on tracks such as “Chain of Fools,” “Rolling in the Deep,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You Send Me.” She plays “Freeway of Love” and then closes with “Respect.”
In between songs, she tells stories of her ties to Atlanta, her brother going to Morehouse College, and makes vague reference to recent health problems that may substantiate earlier reports that she had pancreatic cancer.
Just a couple of years later, she announced her retirement from touring in 2017. Though she said she will still sing live for select events, her last performance was in 2017.
We mourn her death, but remember that Asteroid 249516 Aretha was named in her honor in 2014. As her spirit makes its voyage, she’ll be on the other side of the sky with the strongest stars. Right where she has always been.
William Nesbitt is a professor of English at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla. He wrote article this for the Orlando Sentinel.