Why Aretha is the greatest vocalist of them all

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 14, 2014 - 9:24 PM

Aretha Franklin is the greatest vocalist of all time in popular music. So said Rolling Stone magazine in a list of the 100 greatest singers published in 2008. I’d agree, even though the list didn’t include such supreme contenders as Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

If you go to see the Queen of Soul on Friday at the Minnesota State Fair, you might disagree. At age 72, Aretha isn’t at the height of her fabulous vocal prowess. But there might be one or two or maybe three moments when she will Aretha-ize a song. It often happens when she sits at the piano, noodles around on the keys and gets inside the song, taking it to church, turning secular words into a sanctified celebration, declaration or benediction.

It happened at Mystic Lake Casino in 2011 with “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” She did it with “Georgia on My Mind” at Mystic Lake in ’04 and with “I Can’t Make You Love Me” at Northrop Auditorium in ’92. She tends to do it when interpreting selections associated with other singers.

But if you want to hear what landed Aretha at No. 1 on Rolling Stone’s list, listen to her recordings. I’m not talking about the calculated radio piffle “Freeway of Love,” the 1985 hit that invariably turns up near the end of her concerts.

No, check out “Rock Steady.” She sings softly but so powerfully, so confident with that funky and lowdown feeling. Listen to the purr of hope that is “Angel,” with its feathery vocal ending. Witness the juxtaposition of sweetness and heartbreak in “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” as she goes from wistful memories of that first kiss to the scornful hurt from those lies.

Can you imagine a more glorious-sounding expression of loneliness than “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” which starts with the soaring joy of gospel swoops and shifts into desperate bluesy pleading?

Go to church with her on “Son of a Preacher Man,” as her soulful Southern phrasing works in call-and-response mode with her piano, and then listen to her suddenly cross the line with a slow bluesy declaration, followed by shouts of “hallelujah.”

Like the preacher’s daughter she is, Aretha walks the line between sacred and secular on “You’re All I Need to Get By,” mixing deep soul and gleeful gospel.

On “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” her voice is so soothing, so comforting, so embracing, so controlled that you know she has your back, no matter the circumstance.

On the spectacular “Live at the Fillmore West” album, get hooked on “Dr. Feelgood.” Her voice starts with a warm gospel vibe, delivers a striking trill and then plunges into blues depths, before she changes the mood and surges into bleats of ecstasy, buckets of bliss, then sweet, gentle praise before building to a cascading, roof-raising scream, followed by a satisfying lowdown moan and then a churchy celebration. Somebody say “Amen!”

Over the course of these various numbers, you marvel at Aretha’s technique, her immaculate phrasing, remarkable control and mastery of melisma. Even her humming is sexy. She is a singer completely and uncompromisingly connected to her emotions. She demonstrates an ability to endure pain and embrace pleasure; she proves vulnerable and resilient, and, ultimately, she expresses an uncommon confidence and strength.

Because when Aretha sings it, you know it’s been sung.


Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719

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