Almost a year after her death, Detroit continues celebrating the life of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul and the city’s favorite daughter. On my recent trip to the Motor City, daughter Elena and I joined in paying homage to the artist ranked first on Rolling Stone’s 2010 list of the “Hundred Greatest Singers of All Times.”
At the Detroit Historical Museum’s exhibit honoring her, we learned that Aretha was recording gospel music by age 14, going on to conquer jazz, rhythm and blues and pop tunes with recordings that topped sales charts in all categories. An international superstar, Aretha received 18 Grammy awards.
At the 1998 Grammy ceremony, she filled in for Luciano Pavarotti — with 20 minutes notice — singing “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s “Turandot.”
Born in Memphis in 1942, Aretha grew up singing gospel at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her minister father, C.L. Franklin, moved his family in 1947, following the second migration of African Americans to Detroit during World War II. Workers were needed for the city’s many factories, responsible for over 20 percent of U.S. war production.
The first migration began during World War I, when employers recruited African Americans from the South, who left to seek more opportunity and leave behind the oppression of the Jim Crow South. Detroit’s black population increased from less than 6,000 in 1910 to more than 120,000 by 1930.
Pre-1865, Detroit was an important site on the Underground Railroad. Michigan was a free territory, but most refugee slaves preferred to take the ferry across the Detroit River to Canada, where slavery was abolished in 1834, to avoid slave catchers.
In the Historical Museum’s impressive Underground Railroad exhibit, we learned that in the 1850s, Detroit’s free blacks aided more than 15,000 freedom seekers.
Surrounded by black history, Aretha grew up with Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders frequently visiting the Franklin home. She made sure her 1960 contract with Columbia Records clearly stated that she would never perform for segregated audiences. In 1968, she toured the country with Harry Belafonte to support the Poor People’s Campaign.
In Royal Oak, the Detroit suburb where Elena lives, we walked to the Landmark’s Main Art Theatre to see the recently released movie “Amazing Grace,” the documentary of Aretha’s 1972 live album recorded in two evening sessions at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Louisiana.
The recording became the highest-selling gospel music album of all times, but the movie version was not released because of problems syncing the audio and visual tracks. The film footage sat in Warner Brothers’ storage until producer Alan Elliott purchased it in 2007, knowing that new digital technology would make it possible for him to restore and sync the movie.
However, Aretha sued Elliott in 2011 for using her likeness without her permission, blocking the release of “Amazing Grace.” According to Elliott, she was disappointed that the film was not released in 1972, depriving her of movie star status in addition to her fame as one of the best-selling music artists of all time. Elliot says that he was able to arrange a screening for Aretha shortly before her death from pancreatic cancer in August 2018. “She loved it,” he reported.
After her death, Elliott showed “Amazing Grace” to her family, who gave their blessing for it to be released. According to Peter Travers’ “Rolling Stone” review, “It’s the closest thing to witnessing a miracle — just some cameras, a crowd and a voice touched by God… A film crew was there to catch the Queen of Soul blow the roof off the place. Not to get closer to the Lord — surely He was already listening — but to testify to His glory with the black church music that helped form her and fired her faith.” Elena and I loved “attending” the concert.
Aretha sang a memorable rendition of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. He said that “American history wells up when Aretha sings.”
In addition to her singing career, Aretha was immersed in the struggle for civil rights, women’s rights and Native American rights, donating money, performing at benefits and protests. Her final concert, Nov. 7, 2017, was for Elton John’s AIDS Foundation.
Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson and Aretha’s ex-husband Glynn Turman visited her on her deathbed. After a memorial service at the New Bethel Baptist Church where her singing career began, Aretha lay in public repose at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for several days where her many fans came to say goodbye. Elena said that her clothing was changed daily, and some mourners returned daily to see her spectacular gowns.
Her homegoing service at the Greater Grace Temple included tributes by President Bill Clinton, Rev. Al Sharpton, Ariana Grande, Stevie Wonder, Eric Holder and many others.
Elena and I visited the Wright Museum, founded in 1965 by the Detroit physician whose name it now bears, home to a huge, amazing exhibit on African American culture. The approximation of a slave ship is the most memorable.
In 2014, NASA named Asteroid 249616 “Aretha” in honor of the Queen of Soul. I imagine Aretha singing “Amazing Grace” as her point of light travels through our solar system.