Five decades ago this month — before “Chicago 1968” became a shorthand for mayhem and riots, days ahead of Sen. Abe Ribicoff’s convention-stage denunciation of the police department’s “Gestapo tactics,” and minutes ahead of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s “welcome” speech threatening “law and order in Chicago” — Aretha Franklin opened the Democratic National Convention with a rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” that birthed days of outrage by older, white traditionalists upset that the 26-year-old black Detroiter hadn’t stuck to what they thought the script of a National Anthem performance should be.
“When the Democratic party selected Aretha Franklin to sing … it apparently was not aware that a ‘soul’ version of the anthem is considered bad taste,” wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Paul Jones. “The appearance of Miss Franklin stirred more controversy than even the seating of the [segregated] Georgia delegations.” “Musically, the generation gap was never so wide,” said New York Times critic Jack Gould.
True, Miss Franklin was singing behind the beat of the full military-style band playing the anthem in accompaniment, but this, her manager explained, was not a stylistic choice so much as an unintentional one — they were at one end of the arena and she was on the other, performing without the benefit of an in-ear monitor to hear them.
“Did she know the words?” harumphed Boston Globe TV critic Percy Shain. “Did she leave out ‘land of the free’? And if so, was it inadvertent or intentional, as a comment on the status of the black people?” (The missing answers: Yes, though she stumbled once; No; and Not Applicable.)
Watching the recording of Franklin’s performance today — knowing how everything turned out for her, that she’d come to be revered as the national consensus choice as the greatest voice of the 20th century and that her death Thursday at age 76 uncorked a nationwide downpour of remembrance — it’s difficult to imagine what exactly people were so riled up about.
How could a voice like that, charged with such raw emotion, not be political?
But there had never been anyone like Aretha Louise Franklin.
There’d been female pop stars, but their voices were thin, or their skin was light, or their waists were safely narrow, or their sensibilities fine-tuned for mainstream audiences. Some, like Diana Ross or Ronnie Spector, were relegated to “girl groups” under the thumb of brand-name record executives and producers. Gospel stars who crossed over were men with matinee-idol looks, like Sam Cooke. Crooners like Nat “King” Cole and Ella Fitzgerald were of an older vintage and had to sand down the rough edges. In the 1960s, black artists who made it big with white audiences –including the entirety of the Motown stable – often had to check their politics at the door so as to avoid controversy (which, per Hitsville impresario Berry Gordy’s business sensibilities, was de facto company policy).
All of which made what Franklin was doing all the more daring. She was black. She was a woman. She had curves. She was strong, but knew deep pain. She was angry about injustice. She came from the church. She married Sunday morning with Saturday night. She didn’t apologize for it or check anything at the door. And in 1968, that made her daring.
By the time of the Democratic convention, Aretha was 19 months into a burn-your-tongue hot streak unlike anything a woman of color had ever had the opportunity to achieve. Within that timespan, she became the top-selling solo female artist in music history, with nine top-10 hits.
The emotions she evokes on those songs are, half a century later, still so perfectly heartfelt it’s hard not to envision that Aretha is pouring her soul out directly onto the vinyl record press. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” with her soft ecstasy on a lyric like “Oh baby, what you’ve done to me.” Her cut-the-bullshit tone on “Chain of Fools.” On “Think,” the way the pushback in her voice gets more and more assertive, as if she’s whipping herself into a lather the more she recalls how she’s been treated. She takes Otis Redding’s “Respect,” an up-tempo number about a man wanting to be receive respect when he comes home from work, slows it down and inverts it into the story of a working woman demanding — not asking for — the treatment she’s earned. The matter of fact way she falls into a reverie then snaps out of it: “Oooh, your kisses — sweeter than honey. But guess what? So is my money.” She owns the song so completely that we cannot imagine it ever belonging to anyone else. (Not for nothing did Chicago deejay Pervis Spann anoint her the “Queen of Soul” in October 1967.)
With so much professional success over the previous year-and-a-half, it was a risk to sing at the 1968 Democratic national convention amid the tumult of Vietnam and student protests, after the assassinations of MLK and RFK, with an unpopular LBJ declining to run for reelection. Offering her voice for the “Star-Spangled Banner” at that moment in time was itself a political act. So was the flavor of the way she sung it, imprinting the stylings of black gospel music upon the National Anthem, laying claim to it as also belonging to people like her, even as some southern Democrats in that very hall were threatening to leave the party and support the presidential campaign of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
Today, we take for granted that pop artists can express their political views and for the most part, nobody really bats an eye. That wasn’t always the case, especially for performers of color.
Aretha Franklin was part of the reason why that changed.
She’d always been a social justice activist, the unavoidable outcome of growing up the daughter of Detroit megapastor C.L. Franklin, a man born in Mississippi a half-century after the end of slavery and a half-century before the Voting Rights Act. Rev. Franklin was an agitator for change, a man whose musical, whooping sermons were carried on black radio stations nationwide. He toured the country in the 1950s and 60s with a gospel act that featured his daughters. In Detroit, he’d organized the June 23, 1963, Walk to Freedom, the largest civil rights march in American history at the time, where more than 100,000 demonstrators turned out and his friend, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., first delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. “He was the high priest of soul preaching,” Rev. Jesse Jackson eulogized Franklin in 1984, combining “soul, silence, substance and sweetness.”
Aretha Franklin’s inheritance was a tradition where the political was about justice, justice was about morality, morality about the church’s teachings, and the church was alive through song. “American history wells up when Aretha sings,” President Obama said in 2016. How could a voice like that, charged with such raw emotion, not be political?
With her convention performance, people listened to Franklin and saw and heard what they wanted to or needed to. Any offense lived in the imagination, and as such, certain prejudices took hold in certain viewers.
In that sense, it is not unlike viewers’ reactions to the protests of black athletes during the National Anthem today (at the urging of a military veteran, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel, not sit, during the song in order to demonstrate his reverence for it). People read unintended motivations into actions, seeing or hearing what they, on some psychic level, want.
Unlike those athletes, though, Aretha Franklin wasn’t protesting the anthem. When she sang the song’s closing line — “O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” — she was not protesting, but singing it as written, as a question rather than a claim of fact. That she was the one singing it was statement enough.