Aretha Franklin wasn’t called “The Queen of Soul” for being a one-hit wonder. Franklin died last week of pancreatic cancer at age 76 in her Detroit home.
Despite her worldwide fame, she never forgot her Motor City roots, which were grounded at the church of her late father, Rev. C.L. Franklin. She taught herself to play the piano, sang solos at age 10, toured with a gospel caravan at 14, and signed her first recording deal at age 18.
“I love to sing everything,” Franklin said in a 1999 Fresh Air interview on NPR. “The church provided a training ground for me as a young artist. I loved going to church and being part of the choir.”
Aretha could sing anything, from something as simple as a nursery rhyme to an opera aria on short notice at the Grammy Awards. Her regal voice was unmistakable and unmatched. “I’m comfortable in my own skin and my six-inch heels,” she once told the Detroit Free Press.
Sports also were big in Aretha’s life. She sang the national anthem several times, with each rendition leaving awe-struck all who heard her. At the annual Thanksgiving Day football game in Detroit in 2016, Aretha wore a fur coat and a Lions team wool hat as she played at the piano and belted out the song for almost five minutes.
“I was lucky enough to walk out to her,” Detroit Tigers Manager Ron Gardenhire told me last week – Aretha sang the anthem at the old Metrodome when he was a member of the Minnesota Twins coaching staff. “She was so gracious… I was just happy to be out there [on the field],” he recalled. “I didn’t know what to say [except], ‘I love you.’ It was awkward for me because this is one of my favorite people, one of my favorite singers.
“My wife absolutely adores her. It was a cool moment,” Gardenhire remembered.
The Tigers, in town last week to play the Twins, paid tribute to Aretha on the day of her death by using 15 of her songs as subheadings on the game notes for the media. The host Twins played several of her songs before the game.
This native Detroiter unfortunately never heard Aretha sing in concert. However, I was there when she sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” wearing a grand hat at the 2009 Barack Obama inauguration. Her 1972 Young, Gifted and Black album is among my vast music collection. The album was named the 76th greatest album of all time by VH1 in 2003.
And of course, I am among many of my generation who learned how to spell R-E-S-P-E-C-T from her iconic hit. “I heard Mr. [Otis] Redding’s version and just loved it,” Aretha said in the 1999 NPR interview. “I decided that I wanted to record it.”
Among my fondest memories is seeing her in the summer of 1978 arrive in a long, black limousine to marry actor Glynn Tubman at her father’s church just blocks from my home, wearing a beautiful wedding gown. Although the surrounding streets were blocked off for the occasion, while walking to work I was able to stand across the street and catch the arriving party, which included the Temptations as groomsmen.
Aretha will lay in state at the city’s Wright Museum for two days before her scheduled August 31 homegoing services at the same church where Rosa Parks’ service also was held.
“A beautiful lady,” Gardenhire said of her. “She’s the Queen of Soul, but in my opinion, she is just the Queen.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.