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Aretha Franklin sings “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” at the U.S. Capitol during the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009.
Aretha Franklin sings “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” at the U.S. Capitol during the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009.

RIP, Queen Of Soul

Aretha Franklin’s connections to Jewish songwriters and producers.

Aretha Franklin, the long-reigning “Queen of Soul” who sang with matchless style on such classics as “Think” and her signature song, “Respect,” died Aug. 16, 2018, in Detroit at age 76 of pancreatic cancer.

Jewish producers played a large role in Franklin’s career, according to a story in the Forward. Franklin’s choice to cover “Respect,” originally written and recorded as a macho demand for domestic deference by Otis Redding, was due to the American Jewish producer Jerry Wexler (1917–2008). Born in the Bronx of Polish and German ancestry, he has been called the “funky Jewish king of black music.”

Aretha Franklin sings “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” at the U.S. Capitol during the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009.

Aretha Franklin sings “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” at the U.S. Capitol during the first inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009.

Wexler persuaded Franklin to leave Columbia Records in 1966 and sign with Atlantic Records, where he was an executive. They would form a close artist-producer bond, and Wexler would go on to produce multiple albums of hers. It was his idea to have Franklin cover “Respect.”

“He provided the vehicle to allow me to perform and express myself,” Franklin told the Wall Street Journal following Wexler’s death in 2008.

“Respect” had special resonance in the 1960s.

In his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues, Wexler wrote. “The call for respect went from a request to a demand. And then, given the civil rights and feminist fervor that was building in the 1960s, respect — especially as Aretha articulated it with such force — took on new meaning. ‘Respect’ started off as a soul song and wound up a kind of national anthem.”

In Michael Billig’s Rock and Roll Jews, it’s noted that Wexler also introduced Franklin to other American Jewish songwriters, including Burt Bacharach, whose “I Say a Little Prayer” she covered in 1968, and Carole King (born Carol Klein) and Gerry Goffin, who wrote and produced “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” The result was another iconic pop anthem. Franklin’s blend of gospel roots and glamorous, alluring vocal texture made “Natural Woman” into a hit.

In 1971, in yet another unforgettable cover, Franklin recorded “Spanish Harlem,” a song created by three Jewish pop music stalwarts, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and the now disgraced Phil Spector.

Ethan Davidson

Ethan Davidson

Franklin was a close friend of Ethan Davidson, a singer/songwriter who has recorded 10 albums and toured throughout North America and Europe. He also helps run the William Davidson Foundation, established by his late father, Bill Davidson to advance the economic, cultural and civic vitality of Southeast Michigan, the State of Israel and the Jewish community for future generations. Davidson is also on the board of directors of the Motown Museum.

“Our dear friend Aretha was a frequent guest at Pistons games and in our home over the years. Most gracious and yet always indomitable, her vision and strength of spirit brought brighter light to the world,” Davidson says.

“With the great moral courage that runs through her family, Ms. Franklin fearlessly faced down those who would see women as no more than objects: ‘A woman is not a plaything,’ she sang back in 1967. ‘I am flesh and blood, just like a man.’ This is a message we would do well to remember today. Rest in peace, Aretha. May your light grow ever stronger among us.”

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