Honoring And Remembering Singer Aretha Franklin And Her Voice NPR's Audie Cornish talks with Thulani Davis about Aretha Franklin, the "Queen of Soul," who died Thursday at 76. Davis says Franklin let the style of singing African-Americans knew from church blend into popular music.
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Honoring And Remembering Singer Aretha Franklin And Her Voice

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Honoring And Remembering Singer Aretha Franklin And Her Voice

Honoring And Remembering Singer Aretha Franklin And Her Voice

Honoring And Remembering Singer Aretha Franklin And Her Voice

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NPR's Audie Cornish talks with Thulani Davis about Aretha Franklin, the "Queen of Soul," who died Thursday at 76. Davis says Franklin let the style of singing African-Americans knew from church blend into popular music.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today we are honoring and remembering this voice.

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

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

CORNISH: Aretha Franklin - she died today at the age of 76 reportedly from a type of pancreatic cancer. Born in Memphis, raised in Detroit, she grew up the daughter of the famous Reverend C.L. Franklin. She and her sisters sang gospel in his church, drawing people from all around. By the time she reached her 20s, Aretha Franklin was a star with the 1967 album "I Never Loved A Man." Thulani Davis is an African-American studies scholar. She encountered the legend after having written the liner notes for one of Franklin's greatest hits collections. Earlier, we spoke to her about how Aretha Franklin lived up to her queen of soul title.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) You better think, think about what you're trying to do to me. Think. Let your mind go. Let yourself be free.

THULANI DAVIS: She had the regality without any pomposity or practiced behavior. She was a natural woman, and she made that regal. For me, she threw back the curtain that had been segregation and showed the rest of America how black America took its joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Oh, freedom, freedom, oh, freedom, yeah, freedom. Oh, now, freedom...

DAVIS: By simply being herself and using that incredible voice which really physically - it was a physical experience to be in the room hearing her sing. You - the hair on your back - the back of your neck would just stand up.

CORNISH: Some of this comes from the fact that she grew up the daughter of the Reverend C.L. Franklin - right? - very famous preacher. And huge gospel artists came into her home, right? So she was familiar with Mahalia Jackson. She was familiar with Sam Cooke, who also brought gospel to the mainstream. How did she take it to the next level essentially?

DAVIS: It had to do with her taste in what songs to do, her sense of what time it was. The songs that she did in '67, '68 became anthems for all of us and for successive populations that were in the middle of sort of mobilizing themselves at that time. She had a sense of what time it was. She got on the piano. She played it herself and just lifted those songs up to where they became the anthems for millions of Americans.

CORNISH: You also talk about her having the gift of stretching the boundaries of melody. This gets at her ability to interpret songs - right? - being a really great interpreter. Is there a song that maybe is a little more underrated, people don't pay as close attention to that you think is a great example of this?

DAVIS: "Ain't No Way."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO WAY")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Ain't no way for me to love you.

DAVIS: In some performances, she really, really stretches it out. But when you hear those words ain't no way, you have no idea where you're going. And she says, ain't no way I can love you if you won't let me. In that case, it's not the grace notes but the timing. She gives you the space to understand the depth of the request.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO WAY")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) I know that a woman's duty is to help and...

DAVIS: And that note from her sister also in the back - unbelievable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO WAY")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) And that's the way it was planned.

CORNISH: You know, I want to talk about one other song, one that she wrote, which is "Call Me," because people don't talk about her as much as a writer, right?

DAVIS: I love that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) I love you, and I love you. And I love you, too. Baby, will you call me the moment you get there? Hey, baby...

DAVIS: She took - I guess as a black woman, I would say she took the depth of the way we wanted to take risks with love and gave it to us in a way that was also solace and gave us courage. And "Call Me" has that. There's a kind of courage to the way she keeps coming back and saying, but I'll be there for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ME")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, it really doesn't hurt me that bad, yeah, because you're taking me with you. And I'm keeping you right here in my arms. It's all because I love you.

CORNISH: In the end, what do you think her legacy will be?

DAVIS: I think she's possibly - I hate to say the greatest of all time, but I think she's the greatest singer of the 20th century. Like people like Muhammad Ali, she's known all over the world for something that wasn't at first cherished at home. And she has just moved so many people that she will stand as someone who has made music that will play forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARETHA FRANKLIN SONG, "I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER")

CORNISH: Thulani Davis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Say a little prayer for you.

CORNISH: Thulani Davis of the University of Wisconsin-Madison - she wrote the liner notes to Aretha Franklin's 1992 boxset the "Queen Of Soul: The Atlantic Years."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) I say a little...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Prayer for you.

FRANKLIN: (Singing) And while I'm combing my hair now and wondering what dress to wear now...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Wear now.

FRANKLIN: (Singing) ...I say a little...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Prayer for you. Forever...

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Forever...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ...Forever...

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ...You'll stay in my heart, and I will love you. Forever...

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Forever...

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