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.
***Tickets are now available for this, and they are limited! Come along - in addition to the talk, there will be a pop-up record shop, book signing and a cash bar. Could you imagine a better Friday night than this?
I've had a blast researching for this event, reading Tony and Woody's biographies as well as listening to The Man Who Sold The World A LOT (such hardship!).
Was pleased to see my face made it into Woody's book! That grey smudge is definitely Liz, Charly and I getting our Bowie jush...
This was fun, I was invited by my lovely friend Leon Clowes to join him on his radio show to play Bowie-related music and chat about my favourite artist. How could I resist? You can listen again to the program below.
Currently 1st place on the Experimental and Eclectic mixcloud charts! If you're heading to work this morning, give it a go and enjoy.
0:00: Malio Malio – Leah Kardos (Rococochet 2017)
2:28: Stillness – Hilary Hahn & Hauschka (Silfra 2012) (tape return)
3:54: Contact Mic – Leah Kardos (The Exquisite Corpse 2017)
7:17: Fragment II – Library Tapes (Fragment 2008)
7:40: Voicemail: Singing Telegram, 22nd August 2012
8:42: Innocenti (excerpt) – Brian Eno (The Shutov Assembly 1992)
9:05: Phone recording: Crickets in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, 31st August 2013
9:55: My Cumulus Veil – Leah Kardos (Rococochet 2017)
14:16: Hypnopompia – Somnambulist (Automating 2012) (tape return)
14:44: sun moon blood night – kučka (kučka EP 2012)
19:42 Cat’s Eye – Leah Kardos (Rococochet 2017)
24:14 Buffering Landscape (excerpt) – Kara-Lis Coverdale & LXV (Electronica 2015)
28:20: DFACE Alt Mix (extended) – Leah Kardos (SEQUENCE3 2012)
35:00: Highly Active Girls (instrumental remix) – Leah Kardos (Machines 2013)
39:22: Somnia Tape Loop – Leah Kardos (outtake 2017)
40:15: By This River – Brian Eno (Before and after Science 1977)
43:00: Streuung Teil Ii (excerpt) – Atom ™ (Winterreise 2012)
44:02: Phone recording: drunken recipe research, Bedford, 11th August 2012
44:25: Somnia Dub – Leah Kardos (Rococochet 2017)
I tried my best to use analogue instruments, technologies and processes as often as possible in this project - that meant no programming or editing (my comfort zones) and recording layers of human imperfection and straight-up ERROR to tape and having to live with the results (certainly NOT my comfort zone). The "rococo" reference in the title is all about a fresh style shift. I was feeling personally a bit bogged down in the 'ambient' piano-triads-with-lots-of-reverb-plus-chopped-beats world, so I thought of the Rococo artists with their humour, wit, eye for left field detail and general lightness of being, and tried to adopt some of that into what I was doing.
I read over and over again that Bowie's process regularly involved a risk, make oneself uncomfortable, going out into the water to the point where your feet no longer touch the bottom. So that's inspiring and comforting. I don't really make music for any other reason than the sheer love and absolute delight of the creative process, so why stick to the well-trodden path?
This is a long, roundabout way of saying I hope some people enjoy listening to it, as vulnerable as it made me feel to create it, and as much as the process of making it taught me new things about music and myself.
Available tomorrow to stream on Spotify and Apple Music, and to buy from iTunes and Bandcamp. Photo of my face below, by the very talented J.Slee.
My new album Rococochet will be out on Sept 5th. It is now available to pre-order, and the track 'Cat's Eye' is available to stream.
I was gearing up to write a bit of a blog post about the piece, to explain where I was coming from and the significance of the title… but it's actually best explained with this image collage:
This record is my palate cleanser, something to counter a growing feeling in myself and how I perceive my little corner of the ‘contemporary classical’ landscape, which can sometimes feel very serious and a bit humourless. For my own personal rococo statement, I wanted my music to feel fresh and fun again: to make space for moments of wit and charm; use strong colours; to completely shed any self-seriousness and be open to possibilities.
The album has been created using analogue instruments and recording techniques at Visconti Studio in London. I brought in some amazing players: Paul Glover on drums, Ben Dawson on piano, Lara James on sax, Charles Mutter, Patrick Savage and Richard Harwood on strings. I turned my inexperienced hand to tuned percussion (vibes, marimba, glocks and bells), and vocals. Rather than use virtual instruments and samples (like I usually do) this time I played the CP40, MiniMoog, Moog Sub37 and Mellotron.
I can't wait for people to hear it. x
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