It is no coincidence that two of Aretha Franklin’s celebrated contemporaries who travelled to Detroit to see the singer in the last stages of her illness were Stevie Wonder and Jesse Jackson. It is hard to overestimate Franklin’s importance to both music and the civil rights movement – and the presence of one of music’s greatest figures alongside Martin Luther King Jr’s right-hand man at her bedside in the final days of her life is a fitting tribute to one of the true greats of Black American culture.
Aretha Franklin was the “Queen of Soul”. One of the bestselling recording artists of all time, she became famous in the 1960s as a singer with a uniquely expressive voice possessing great passion and control. Her hit songs in the late 1960s tapped into the spirit of the civil rights movement while her hit cover (and gendered re-authoring) of Otis Redding’s Respect was an anthem of black female empowerment.
The first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, Franklin’s voice was declared one of Michigan’s important “natural resources” two years before. She won 18 Grammy Awards including the Lifetime Achievement Award (in 1994) and presided over a rich recorded musical legacy preserved in 42 studio albums, 131 singles, six live albums and more. Her iconic performances and productions came to define the term “soul music” in the 20th century, setting the standard for black female vocal excellence.
The daughter of celebrity Detroit minister CL Franklin, Franklin was born in Memphis in 1942 and raised in Detroit, starting her singing career in the choir at her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church. She belonged to a generation of African American artists who migrated from the south during a time when segregation and Jim Crow law was still in effect, who then went on to participate in mainstream American culture.
Her deep connection to the southern freedom movement was familial and spiritual as well as musical – her father was actively involved with Democratic party politics and the civil rights movement. Politicians and activists – along with many of the gospel superstars of the day – were a fixture in the family home. As a result, Franklin received formative musical mentoring from stars such as Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson in addition to inheriting a strong commitment to social justice. She was to support progressive politics throughout her career.
For people stuck in political struggles for equality and respect, Franklin’s voice came to articulate the collective emotion, frustration, strength and depth of their experiences. Her voice rang out at historical political milestones – at the 1968 Democratic party convention in Chicago that shortly followed the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy, and at the inauguration of the first African American president Barack Obama in 2009. She also performed at pre-inauguration concerts for Democratic party presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Inspired to follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke, Franklin began her solo singing career in 1960 performing on the gospel circuit and signing a record deal with Columbia Records. Her first secular albums in the early 1960s blended R&B styles with pop and jazz and achieved only modest success. It wasn’t until her move to Atlantic records and a deliberate return to gospel music stylings in 1967 that Franklin made her commercial breakthrough.
Recording at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, working in partnership with Atlantic co-owner and producer Jerry Wexler and the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section, Franklin’s debut for Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, was certified gold in the same year of its release. Her work with Wexler at Muscle Shoals during this period spawned many well-known hits such as Chain of Fools, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Respect, and I Say A Little Prayer.
While she recorded and performed her own compositions from time to time (hit 1968 single and feminist anthem Think is an original song of hers), Franklin earned a great part of her fame as a unique interpreter of other people’s songs. Through gospel-influenced musical rearrangement, and her striking changes to melodic content, she effectively re-authored material written by others, asserting a sense of creative ownership through spirited and dynamic vocal performance.
Franklin often altered the context of the existing lyric through her inflection and emphasis or by introducing call and answer interplay with her background singers. These voices of sisterly support were often provided by her very own siblings, Erma and Carolyn Franklin or The Sweet Inspirations (a girl group founded by Cissy Houston and Lee Warwick, the mothers of Whitney and Dionne). Using these techniques, as she did with Respect, lyrics could be repositioned to reflect the black female perspective. Another later example of this can be found in her interpretation of the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash in 1986, which was used as the theme tune for the Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name.
Music culture owes Franklin a debt for bringing ecstatic pentecostal fervour to popular music, pushing the expressive boundaries of the contemporary singing voice. She was one of the first true great divas of soul (alongside Diana Ross) – fusing gospel and African American spiritual music traditions with the blues, pop and R&B to create the template of vocal expressiveness and authenticity that artists aspire to still. In doing so she set the stage for the technical virtuosity of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.
A fierce musical talent not only in sensitive and dynamic vocal interpretation but also as a skilled pianist and arranger, Franklin demanded respect from us. And because of her many great artistic and cultural achievements, it will forever be given.
Click here to read my paper on Making Room for 21st Century Musicianship in Higher Education, which shares my experiences and perspectives relating to contemporary Post-digital aesthetics in music creation, performance and production, and the development of new, practice-focussed music technology curriculum at Kingston University.
Abstract: Having been asked to respond to Action Ideal VIII by the Mayday Group, concerning technology and its impacts on music education, what follows are some observations and reflections from my experiences teaching undergraduate music and music technology degrees in the UK. I put forward the idea that Post-Digital music aesthetics reflect an emergent sensibility in contemporary music cultures, and this represents an opportunity for music educators to reconfigure and strengthen their pedagogical approaches. By recognizing the legitimacy of new and varied forms of musicianship, and acknowledging the ways in which our subject area continues to grow in its range of practices and necessary literacies, strategies can be developed to support a music student experience that is cohesive, inclusive, hybridized, meaningful and useful.
Admittedly, not the kind of thing I'd usually spend time on. I'm glad I did it, though. A good reminder that simple things can have a kind of elegance in their efficiency.
Click here to read the article.
The new Oxford Handbook of Technology and Music Education is finally here! I was so honoured to be asked by Alex Ruthmann & Roger Mantie to contribute to this exciting volume. Look a that list of names! It's nuts that I'm in there with them.
This 700 page volume has contributions from 42 authors sharing their diverse perspectives and further commentaries on provocation questions at the intersection of technology and music education. If anyone is interested in reading my little contribution, you can find it here.
My article is called "Bowie musicology: mapping Bowie’s sound and music language across the catalogue", built around a fun research idea that was initially sparked in a friend's front room a few years go. I've spoken about bits of this work at the 2015 Bowie themed conference at ACMI in Melbourne and later in a special keynote at Cambridge. It feels really good to have it published now. Thank you Sean Redmond and Toija Cinque for the opportunity to be part of this. <3
If anyone's interested in reading the article, it's here: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ccon20/31/4
and here: https://www.academia.edu/33892304/Bowie_musicology_mapping_Bowies_sound_and_music_language_across_the_catalogue
In the summer of 2015 I sent a proposal off to the editors of the 33 1/3 series for a book about my favourite David Bowie album Scary Monsters and Super Creeps (1980). To my surprise and delight, out of the 606 proposals they received from their open call, I somehow made the shortlist of 85. In the end, my book idea was not chosen for publication (though I have to say the albums/authors that were chosen seem extremely worthy and I can't wait to read the new volumes).
Part of the proposal package included a draft introductory chapter, so I thought I would share that here just in case it is of interest to anyone. I realise that in the wake of the news of his death there has been a flood of amazing stories, blogs, think-pieces, memories and tributes - many people might be feeling some Bowie-death-fatigue setting in. I know I am. If that's the case I invite you to consider and celebrate the staggering body of work he has gifted us, as I ask you to focus on Scary Monsters and Super Creeps.
(click on the 'read more' link to see the chapter)
It’s available from Bloomsbury from the 29th of January as a hardback, paperback or e-book.
“This book treats with freshness and vitality issues that are crucial for educators in higher education and beyond. The international and multi-disciplinary group of scholars – anthropologists, psychologists, musicians, artists and art educators – engage us in deeply educational issues and experiences...Enthusiastically recommended!” – Liora Bresler, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education, University of Illinois, USA
“This is an illuminating and long-overdue book that celebrates the myriad ways in which musicians engage their creativity, both as they develop their expertise and then as professionals. In many contexts, we are experiencing acute needs to champion innovative artistic practices whilst at the same time maintaining the qualities of traditional practices. It is clear that creative entrepreneurship is essential to future success, and this book helps to demystify its principles and practice. It is a must-read for all those engaged in higher music education.” – Helena Gaunt, Vice Principal and Director of Academic Affairs, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, UK
***UPDATE: It's here!
I received a hardback copy of the book from the publishers and I thought it was rather pretty! Also, amazed my reference to Kanye West got through the edit...
You can access it online here, if you want to.
"I am a composer, producer, pianist and part-time music lecturer at a Further Education college where I teach composing on Music Technology courses at levels 3 (equivalent to A-level) and 4 (Undergraduate/Foundation Degree). A ‘Music Technology’ course, distinct from a ‘Music’ course, often attracts applicants from diverse musical backgrounds; it is not uncommon for a typical class to contain a majority that cannot read staff notation and have taught themselves to play their instrument. Sometimes the student's only experience of music-making prior to the course has been sequencing beat patterns using computer software. Potential students are drawn to music technology courses for many different reasons – perhaps their individual interests lie in sound engineering, acoustics, live sound reinforcement, computer programming or software application design. As a teacher of composing in this context, I am faced with a challenge: how to bridge the knowledge and confidence gaps that exist between students with more and less formal musical experience? I believe that music technology applications can help in this area, particularly with fostering confidence and motivation in less-experienced students. What follows is a student profile and a case study of one assessment task in composing, which will illustrate how such strategies can work."