It’s incredible to witness someone be so much better at a particular profession than anyone else that she actually comes to signify that vocation, seemingly for the rest of time.
Michael Jordan was like that for pro basketball, though even MJ now might one day be usurped by LeBron James. James Brown was the undisputed hardest working man in show business for much of the 20th century, though now his artistic offspring, Michael Jackson and Prince, get most of his shine. But Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday at the age of 76, was always the most towering figure amid a crowded field of big-voiced divas. And it’s hard to imagine that ever not being true.
It’s not just that she was highly successful over the course of several decades — she won 18 Grammys, charted 112 singles, and sold 75 million records. Aretha Franklin, like all awe-inspiring singers, was both a great artist and a singular athlete. The wonder of her voice was that it could soothe your soul (or reduce you to tears) while also wowing you with its sheer physical power and dexterity. She performed feats that could not be approached by mere mortals. Her music expressed the full spectrum of human emotion, but her voice verged on super human. There was simply nobody else like her.
And she knew it. Aretha Franklin was famously competitive, right up through her final years. In 2014, when asked to assess the latest generation of divas, she was deliciously subtle in her thinly veiled disdain, praising Taylor Swift for her “beautiful gowns” and not-so-politely declining to comment on Nicki Minaj. In the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, she was dismissive, or downright hostile, to a crop of A-list would-be rivals, including Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, and Celine Dion. Aretha was the best, and was willing to fight to be the best — even though nobody dared to pick a fight with her. Who in the hell would try to out-sing Aretha Franklin? It would be like trying to punch-out a mountain.
Over the next several days and weeks, people will take stock of Franklin’s legacy, though her impact on modern pop is so profound that it will be impossible for any one person to do it justice. So, I would just like to share my favorite Aretha Franklin performance, and humbly add it to whatever overstuffed playlist of Aretha highlights you’re presently blasting.
It’s from her concert at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, which took place four months after her shows in San Francisco, later released as the excellent live album, Aretha Live At Fillmore West. As she was at the Fillmore, Franklin was backed by the legendary saxophonist King Curtis (who was murdered just two months after the Montreux gig) and his band, the Kingpins. Franklin herself also plays piano on several tunes, including my personal highlight, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”