Can there be anyone who doesn't go all Pavlovian when he hears the name Aretha and start singing "R-E-S-P-E-C-T"? OK, maybe North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is sitting somewhere in Pyongyang under two pounds of Elvis hair watching Daffy Duck cartoons. But he doesn't count. Everybody else knows that Aretha Franklin has spent decades belting out songs like "Respect," "Chain of Fools," and "A Natural Woman" and earning her much-deserved "Queen of Soul" title.
After her mother died young, Franklin was raised by her father, a Detroit preacher whose parlor was a kind of Motown Grand Central for the likes of Mahalia Jackson and Smokey Robinson. And the future diva carried on Mahalia's tradition. "Gospel nourished my soul," she says in her 1999 autobiography, From These Roots. Since the early '60s, Franklin has recorded almost 50 albums and won 16 Grammy Awards, the most recent in February (Traditional R&B Vocal Performance) for the song "Wonderful" from her latest album, So Damn Happy.
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For a quick tutorial, rent the movie Blues Brothers to watch Aretha in a waitress uniform slap men around and sing, of course, "Respect." (Because this month is being celebrated as the 50th anniversary of the landmark school desegregation case Brown vs. Board of Education, the song can be an especially strong reminder of black activism of the '50s and '60s.) But also listen to her 1970 album This Girl's in Love with You for gospel-laced covers of the Beatles' "Let It Be" and "Eleanor Rigby" and a hotter version of Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man." In comparison, Dusty (rest in peace) may start sounding as amateur as those keening, dewy-eyed brats who play Mr. Microphone on American Idol each week and beg acceptance from Paula Abdul. -- Dave Amber