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Remembering The 'Queen Of Soul'

NOEL KING, HOST:

This morning, we are remembering one of the greatest singers of all time. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul has died at her home in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) 'Cause I ain't never - I ain't never - I ain't never - no, no - loved a man the way that I - I love you.

KING: She was 76 years old. And I'm joined now by Daphne Brooks. She's a professor of African-American studies at Yale.

Good morning, professor Brooks.

DAPHNE BROOKS: Good morning.

KING: All right. So I bet you that a lot of us can't remember a time before Aretha Franklin. She had such a long career. How did she get her start?

BROOKS: She came up singing in her legendary father, the grand preacher C. L. Franklin's church in Detroit. She was laying down these house-wrecking solos. In her early teens, she cut a gospel album "Songs Of Faith." Everyone knew she was destined for greatness.

KING: And she moved on, eventually, to a time at Columbia Records. And I know you've said and written that you find that to be a very, very important time in her career. What was so key about her time at Columbia?

BROOKS: Well, it was crucial. It was really - it was a period of apprenticeship. She was studying really, you know, the first half of the 20th century's great masters of song, African-American women's recordings - Bessie Smith, her idol Dinah Washington; Nancy Wilson, who was, you know, a contemporary of hers; Mahalia Jackson, someone she knew well within the context of the gospel world. She was pulling all of these different genres together.

And there's a way in which Aretha's Columbia years have been kicked to the curb by a number of critics, that this was somehow, you know, not authentic Aretha, the gospel Aretha. Right? She was doing supper-club singing, light jazz quote, unquote, "light R&B." But really, she was pulling all of these genres together, you know, creating the kind of scaffolding for this enormous breakthrough in 1966 when she signed with Atlantic Records. You don't get to soul music without going through all of those different genres, all of those different kinds of registers of sonic emotion and then compressing it into, you know, this fine, you know, pop music form that was a combination of the sacred and the profane (inaudible)...

KING: Well, yeah. She was...

BROOKS: ...Soul music.

KING: She was polymathic in that sense.

BROOKS: Yes.

KING: I mean, it's interesting you talk about her bringing everything together.

BROOKS: Yes.

KING: We forget how few artists can do that.

BROOKS: That's right.

KING: I want to play a personal favorite of yours. This is Aretha Franklin singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" live at the Fillmore West.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Take it when darkness falls and pain is all - is all around. Yeah...

KING: Why do you love that one so much?

BROOKS: Oh, my goodness. 1971, San Francisco, the house of the hippies, the Fillmore West - right? She pulled together this multiracial, this multicultural audience. Now, this is long before the house that Yonce (ph) built at Beychella (ph). Right? She moves into that space, and she delivers a song that conveys the complexity of our deepest interior emotions. She gives us a way of reckoning with our humanity through sound. There's something so nuanced about the kind of intelligence of Aretha's melisma and this kind of, you know, pulling together of all of these notes into one syllable...

KING: Yeah.

BROOKS: ...Which we're so used to hearing. It's the wallpaper of our pop world now...

KING: Yeah.

BROOKS: ...Via "American Idol," via the Arianas and the Christinas. Right?

But Aretha was this masterful storyteller. She was a storyteller who gave us a way of understanding what it meant to be human. At the height of the nation coming apart at its seams, she pulled us together to be able to listen closely to the eminence of black folks' humanity, black women's humanity and to reckon with one's own humanity in that moment. There's no one - there's no one like her.

KING: And she stayed relevant. I mean, that was the thing.

BROOKS: Yeah.

KING: She continued to shape music to this day. Right?

BROOKS: Yes. Yes, she continued to stay relevant. I mean, we of course know about the magnificent performance in 1998 when she filled in for Pavarotti and of course, in 2015, the Kennedy Center moment in which we are reminded of her ability to be an accompanist of herself at the piano. Right? She was a masterful musician in addition to being the most extraordinary vocalist of our modern era. So in that sense, she is someone that we will continue to study and hold close to our hearts, especially in this time of trial.

KING: Professor Daphne Brooks - she wrote the liner notes for the Columbia Records box set "Take A Look."

Professor, thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.