What does one do when the King of the High Cs of Opera is suddenly indisposed, almost literally at the last minute before a major performance? Getting the Queen of Soul to step in might not seem the most likely resort, but it worked, and how!
In 1998, Luciano Pavarotti abruptly had to cancel a performance at that year’s Grammy awards at the Radio City Music Hall. Aretha Franklin, a personal friend of Pavarotti, agreed to sing in his place. However, rather than performing one of her own hit songs, Franklin opted instead to sing Pavarotti’s own signature aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot that he was scheduled to sing, and about which I had written just a few columns ago.
With just twenty minutes to spare, there was certainly no time to rehearse with the live orchestra. However, she used the time to listen twice to a recording of the orchestral accompaniment, and then, quietly, confidently, said “I can do it.”
Her “cross-over” performance was watched by more than a billion viewers on television in addition to the Grammy audience, which included several other artists such as Celine Dion. At the aria’s climax, she hit the top note, a high B gracefully and effortlessly.
As her biographer David Ritz put it, “It was as though Puccini had been brought up in the black Baptist church.”
She would sing ‘Nessun Dorma’ again in 2015 at an event for Pope Francis in Philadelphia.
Since her passing on 16 August at the age of seventy-six, through to her elaborate funeral on 31 August, lasting over seven hours, much has been written and said about her extraordinary career spanning several decades. The Queen of Soul – who sold over 75m records worldwide – became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
As music historian Paul Gambaccini said in an interview, “Four Top 10 albums, and nine Top 10 singles, in just a year and a half! What a thrill it was, to be young and listening to music in that eighteen month period!”
But it is her track record of civil rights activism, her lending a voice to the oppressed, which impresses me even more than her enormous singing voice.
Franklin was quite literally born into activism, the daughter of prominent African American preacher Clarence LaVaughn “C L” Franklin (who organised the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom ahead of his close friend Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington) and his wife Barbara Siggers.
It was her father (a very good singer himself, who Aretha would later say could have been a professional singer himself had he wanted) who encouraged her to sing, as he recognised her potential. She began singing at the New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was pastor.
When her biographer David Ritz asked her to describe what was going through her mind when she stood in for Pavarotti, she replied “I thought of church. When I was a little girl and asked to sing in front of a big congregation, I was never afraid. I felt everyone pulling for me. I felt the support of my father. I felt the support of God almighty.”
C L Franklin was nicknamed “the man with the million-dollar voice” for his emotionally charged sermons, the most famous ones being ‘The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest’ (the recording of which was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011) and ‘Dry Bones in the Valley’.
In her youth, Aretha was mentored by “Queen of Gospel” Mahalia Jackson, also a noted civil rights activist and also good friends with King.
‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’, a great single by Otis Redding, was transformed by Franklin into an anthem for women’s rights and African-American civil rights. Released by her in 1967, it became her signature song. In her memoir ‘Aretha: From these Roots’, she wrote: “It [reflected] the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect…..It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”
‘You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)’ similarly became another emblem for justice.
Her championing of the civil rights movement dictated her professional and personal life, touring several cities in the US with King and Harry Belafonte, performing without charging a fee.
In 1968, Detroit mayor James Cavanagh declared February 16 as Aretha Franklin Day. Martin Luther King Jr flew in to attend the ceremony. While King was leader of the civil rights movement in America, Aretha Franklin had become the inspiring symbol of Black equality.
That evening in Detroit, when King and Franklin were together on the same stage, was a moment of inspiring history. It would also be the last time she saw King. Two months later, she sang for him one last time, at his funeral. She sang a gospel hymn made famous by Mahalia, ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’.
When revolutionary activist and scholar Angela Davis was arrested in 1970, Franklin offered to post bail for her. “Angela Davis must go free,” she said at the time. “Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Franklin also strongly supported Native American rights, First Nation cultural rights and Indigenous People’s struggles worldwide.
Would that more of us, all over the world, took a leaf out of her book, and had the courage to risk everything to speak up for what we believe to be right and just and true, in the face of the might of the establishment. God knows we need people with her grit and guts, certainly here in India today.