Celebrating Aretha: Valley musicians and entertainers recall the ‘Queen of Soul’

  • Above, Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” died of cancer last Thursday at age 76. Here she’s seen performing at a concert in Newark, New Jersey in 2013. AP Photo/Charles Sykes

  • Mandy Pachios, lead vocalist of the Northampton soul band The Mary Jane Jones, calls Franklin a key inspiration as a musician, an activist and a strong woman. Gazette file photo

  • Left, June Millington, at right, here leading a class at the Institute of Musical Arts in Goshen, says Aretha Franklin’s music spoke to her as a young woman “in a whole new way.”

  • Kaliis Smith, at left, lead singer for the soul/funk group Soul Magnets, says she was “gutted” by Franklin’s death — but that her music lives on.  Image from Facebook/Soul Magnets

  • Bob Cilman, longtime director of the Young@Heart Chorus, says he was “hooked forever” by Aretha Franklin’s music after hearing her signature song “Respect.” Gazette file photo

Staff Writers
Published: 8/22/2018 3:47:51 PM

One fan remembered playing her records nonstop in college. Another recalled songs like “Respect” and “Think” speaking to her as a woman in a way no popular singer had ever done before. A third felt absolutely “gutted” by her death — so she filled the local airwaves with her music.

Across the Valley, musicians, radio programmers and others in the field recalled Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul” who died last week at the age of 76, with both heartfelt admiration and sadness — as well as the hope that her music will continue to resonate.

With anthems such as “Respect,” “Think,” and “Chain of Fools,” Franklin not only topped the R&B and pop charts many times in a more than 50-year, Grammy-winning career, she became a symbol both of African-American pride and strong womanhood.

That sense of indomitable female pride — that a woman was more than some kind of accessory to a man and needed to be treated as such — resonated with June Millington when she first heard Franklin’s music in the late 1960s.

Millington, of Goshen, was then an aspiring musician in her late teens — one who would soon become part of Fanny, the first all-female rock band to be signed to a major label.

“I can remember trying to learn how to play ‘(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman’ on my acoustic guitar,” said Millington, who today leads classes at the Institute For Musical Arts in Goshen, a rock music camp for young girls and teens.

“Aretha not only had this fabulous voice, she was singing about women and love in a way I’d never heard before,” she added. “She was singing from the perspective of the way she was being treated, and how it had to be better … You had other female singers and groups singing dance music then, but it was not the same message.”

Franklin had significant success in the early 1960s as a young R&B and gospel singer, but her career took off in a big way starting around 1967 with songs like “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man,” “Think,” and especially “Respect.” The latter was written by Otis Redding but became a signature song for Franklin and an anthem for the Women’s Movement.

“She put her take on that and made it absolutely her own,” said Millington. “That song spoke to me in a truly unique way.”

Bob Cilman, the longtime director of the Young@Heart Chorus, remembers listening to Franklin’s music “non-stop” when he was in college. “She was the undisputed queen of soul for a reason,” he said in an email. “Everything she touched turned to gold.

“I remember having an album called ‘Stars of the Apollo’ that featured a very young Aretha singing ‘Evil Gal Blues,’ ” Cilman added. “Once she came out with ‘Respect,’ I was hooked forever.”

Over the years, Y@H has performed scores and scores of songs by rock and roll, pop, R&B and soul artists — but never anything by Aretha Franklin, Cilman noted. “Probably out of RESPECT. But we have a show at the Academy [of Music] on October 21st and I think somehow we will do something.

“We learned of her passing at a rehearsal,” he said. “So sad that she died relatively young.”

Rocking the piano

Steve Waksman, professor of music and American Studies at Smith College, writes regularly about popular music and is a guitarist himself. In an email, he said he’s long appreciated Franklin’s extensive song catalog, particularly some of her gospel recordings.

He also says Franklin was part of a “deep lineage of powerful African American women in song,” from Bessie Smith to Ma Rainey to Billie Holiday. But she achieved stardom as the Civil Rights and Women’s movements emerged, making her an especially iconic figure, Waksman noted: “She represented major progress in the recognition of African American female artists as agents of social change.”

As a performer, Waksman noted, Franklin was “multi-faceted”: a strong songwriter, an “exceptionally gifted singer” who easily moved between different genres, and “one of the great vocal interpreters, on a par with Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra, artists who make any song their own.”

And, he added, “She rocked the piano every bit as much as a Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder.”

Kaliis Smith, a deejay with 93.9 The River and the lead vocalist for the local soul/funk group Soul Magnets, said she was so “gutted” to hear of Franklin’s death that in the three days afterward, she continuously played a range of her B-sides on her show, including gospel tunes, cover songs, and live recordings.

“It’s crazy the power and range she had and the control that she had, too,” said Smith. “You hear it in a lot of her live recordings, but you underestimate exactly how good she was at everything because it just seemed so easy to roll off of her.”

Smith, like Waksman, recalled Franklin as a “fantastic pianist” who could handle jazz as well as soul, R&B, gospel and pop. She also did opera and classical arrangements, she noted: “She was so multi-talented.”

Meantime, Mandy Pachios, lead vocalist of the Northampton-based soul band The Mary Jane Jones, was at home with a few musician friends when she heard about Franklin’s passing.

“The birds stopped singing,” she said on Facebook Messenger. “Shock. Shock and now grief. The weight of what she meant to me personally from a young age and how she influenced my music and songwriting ... is overwhelming and I will be unpacking this for a long time.”

Pachios said she grew up in a Pentecostal family and wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music; ironically, though, she discovered Franklin’s music when she heard some of her songs on the soundtrack of her father’s favorite movie, “The Blues Brothers.” That eventually helped Pachios build a bridge from church music to jazz, blues, and soul. 

“There are some things about Aretha Franklin that are inextricable from Aretha Franklin: her incredible talent, her faith, her activism, her womanhood, and her Blackness,” Pachios said. “As a white woman singing soul music, I feel a great responsibility to speak to the times when I perform and acknowledge the Blackness of the artists I cover.”

Though Franklin may be gone, her legacy will live on, said Smith. “There’s a lot for people to continue to discover how wonderful she is. Music doesn’t die.”

But in terms of replacing her?

“Are you kidding me?” said Millington. “She can’t be replaced. That’s why she was the Queen of Soul. She’s part of the very fabric of our music.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.

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