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Celebrating the legendary voices of the Black Queens of music

There are far too many superb songstresses to feature in just one post. Some have already been highlighted in this series; Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Bessie Smith, along with girl groups like the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas.

Today, my focus is on two soulful sisters born during the ‘30s and ‘40s, women whose voices are very special to me, who have passed on—Aretha Franklin and Miriam Makeba. Next Sunday, we’ll celebrate three more: Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, and Gladys Knight.

Though she is the younger of the two, I am opening with Aretha Franklin, in honor of the anniversary of her August 2018 death. I don’t know how to even characterize her: Is her music soul, gospel, R&B, pop, or … a powerhouse combination of them all? 

Aretha Franklin sang music that was spiritually inspirational, and then switched up and called upon a Black, natural woman feminism which crossed all lines when she spelled out her demands for respect. We cried with her, we went to church with her, and we marched to the sound of her voice.

This is not the first time I have written about Aretha here, nor will it be my last. I celebrated her birthday with Black Kos in 2014, and spent Christmas with her and Nancy Wilson in 2018. I’m also not the only one here to write about the Queen of Soul. My dear friend TrueBlueMajority delivered a two-hour playlist in the wake of her death.

I’m gonna be honest—ain’t no way I can name a favorite Aretha song. There are just too many great ones, and as always, I invite you to post your favorites in the comments. But I will start with “Ain’t No Way.”

New York Daily News writer Leonard Greene agrees with my pick, according to his 2018 Franklin obituary, which notes that there “‘Ain’t No Way’ soul icon Aretha Franklin will ever be forgotten.”

You would think that with the vast number of songs in the Aretha Franklin catalogue that it would be hard for a fan, a true fan, to have a single favorite. But the answer to that question has always been as easy to me as “What’s your name,” or “Where were you born.”

Favorite Aretha song? “Ain’t No Way.”

The classic is as raw, simple and vulnerable as it gets, with lyrics as truthful as the lines in an old man’s face.

“It ain’t no way for me to love you, if you won’t let me,” the songbird sang. “Stop trying to be someone you’re not. Hard, cold and cruel is a man who paid too much for what he got. And if you need me to love you, say you do. Oh then, baby, don’t you know that I need you.”

(Cue Cissy Houston on the high note.)

Here we go.

This 1968 ABC News documentary The Singers: Two Profiles, offers some background on how “Ain’t No Way” was crafted in the studio, with coaching from Aretha’s baby sister Carolyn, who wrote it. The half-hour film, released when Franklin was just 26, includes interviews with several men in the Aretha orbit: her preacher father and brother, her longtime producer Jerry Wexler, as well as her first husband, Ted White. Made a full 50 years before her death, it’s amazing to see footage of a young Franklin, back when she was just getting started.

One of the things highlighted are her great piano skills, which are often lost in the shadow of her larger-than-life voice. Franklin’s dedication to her craft and attention to detail are also on full display.

My second pick for a favorite Aretha Franklin song is the tune I was married to: “Wholy Holy,” from her 1972 Amazing Grace album, which, as Rolling Stone notes, was centered in her roots in the church.

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin went back to where it all started. Over two days at Los Angeles’ New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, she gave audiences – which included Clara Ward and Mick Jagger – a glimpse of what she learned in the Detroit church of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin. The resulting live album, Amazing Grace, sold 2 million copies and won a Grammy. Executive producer Jerry Wexler, himself an atheist, said the album “relates to religious music in much the same way Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel relates to religious art. In terms of scope and depth, little else compares to its greatness.”

I was thrilled when the concert film of the Amazing Grace album was released. This clip includes “Wholy Holy,” and addresses Franklin’s choice to record the album in a church instead of a studio.

When Franklin died of pancreatic cancer in 2018, a seemingly endless string of tributes rolled in, like this one from PBS.

Her funeral service lasted a remarkable eight hours, and was well-documented by The Washington Post.

Before the arrival of the family and casket bearing Franklin, several songs from the Queen of Soul’s vast catalogue played in the sanctuary, including “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and “I Say a Little Prayer for You.” As the choir sang a rousing rendition of the gospel song “Marvelous,” mourners sprang to their feet and sang along.

Just before 11 a.m., the family entered the Greater Grace Temple, as legendary gospel musician Richard Smallwood played the piano.

The iconic singer received nearly every major award one could receive during her lifetime. That included being the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as well as receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts and 18 Grammys.

One of my favorite highlights from the service was Gladys Knight’s rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Aretha’s funeral was not the end of her story. The long-awaited Aretha-authorized biopic Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson, has been in the works for a number of years. Here’s a taste.

Don’t get too excited for that promised December release—the latest date proposed is for the weekend of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in January 2021.

Moving far away from the music centers of Black America, let’s head to the other side of the globe where, a full decade before Aretha, a future Black star was born in South Africa.

This short documentary on Zenile Miram Makeba’s life tells her story.

Though she is often left off of lists of top Black female singers, Makeba’s voice helped change the world.

Miriam Makeba was born in March 4th, in 1932 Johannesburg, during a time of economic depression. Her mother, a domestic worker, was imprisoned for six months for illegally brewing beer to help make ends meet, and Miriam went to prison with her as she was just 18 days old. She grew up in Nelspruit where her father was a clerk with Shell Oil. Makeba’s mother was also a sangoma, or a practitioner of herbal medicine, divination and counselling in traditional Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi (Nguni) societies of Southern Africa. Her father died when she was five years old, (and) Miriam was sent to live with her grandmother at a compound in Riverside, Pretoria. From a young age, Makeba loved to sing at church, and performed her first solo during the 1947 Royal Visit. Miriam began her working life helping her mother clean houses. In the 1950s, she lived in Sophiatown when it was a vibrant place and one of the few areas where all races could mix. It was the scene of kwela music, marabi and African jazz and big band music became popular.

Miriam Makeba began her music career singing for her cousin’s band, the Cuban Brothers, but it was only when she began to sing for the Manhattan Brothers in 1954 that she began to build a reputation. She toured South Africa, Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia) and the Congo with the band until 1957. After this Makeba sang for all-women group, the Skylarks, which combined jazz and traditional African melodies. Makeba’s appearances in the films Come Back Africa (1957) and as the female lead in Todd Matshikiza’s King Kong (1959) cemented her reputation in the music industry both locally and abroad. She later married her King Kong co-star, Hugh Masekela, in 1964. Makeba arrived in New York in November 1959, later resigning herself to exile after South Africa refused to renew her passport.

I can still remember the first album of hers that I bought—her 1960 debut, simply titled Miriam Makeba.

As she made more albums and traveled around the world in exile from her homeland, Makeba often sang in other languages. Her ability to cross borders with her music was phenomenal—here she sings in Brazilian Portuguese.

In many ways, Makeba was the mother of what would become the “world music” genre, and she later influenced the development of what we now call “Afro-pop.”

With former husband Hugh Masekela, Makeba performed at The Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert, held on June 11, 1988 in Wembley Stadium in London. which “was watched not only by a capacity audience of 72,000, but also on television, by close on a billion people in over 60 countries of the world.”

The concert ultimately helped pressure the South African government to release Mandela.

This year, Makeba was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Women of the Year, right alongside Aretha and Billie.

Though she’s honored by TIME today, Makeba’s relationship to the United States grew rocky in her later years. In her New York Times obituary by Alan Cowell, this explanation of her rejection by U.S. record labels was proffered.

She was married several times. Her husbands included the American black power activist Stokely Carmichael, with whom she lived in Guinea, and the South African-born jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who also spent many years in exile.

In the United States she became a star, touring with Harry Belafonte in the 1960s and winning a Grammy award with him in 1965 for “An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba.” Such was her following and fame that she sang in 1962 at the birthday party of President John F. Kennedy. She also performed with Paul Simon in his “Graceland” concert in Zimbabwe in 1987.

But she fell afoul of the music industry in the United States because of her marriage to Mr. Carmichael. Scheduled concerts were suddenly being canceled, she said.

“It was not a ban from the government; it was a cancellation by people who felt I should not be with Stokely because he was a rebel to them,” Ms. Makeba said in May in an interview with the British music critic Robin Denselow in The Guardian of London. “I didn’t care about that. He was somebody I loved, who loved me, and it was my life.”

A musical side note to Makeba’s career is a link to Nina Simone via the Puerto Rican drummer Leopoldo Fleming, who played with both of them for years.

As Errol L. Montes Pizarro writes for Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Makeba brought Fleming to Africa for the first time, where he witnessed her stardom there firsthand.

Leopoldo F. Fleming joined Miriam Makeba’s band just when she was starting her meteoric rise to worldwide stardom. Besides her extraordinary gifts as a singer, another factor that contributed to Miriam positioning herself as the premier African star on a world scale, was her militant opposition to the racist apartheid system in South Africa, support of struggles for civil rights by African-Americans, and solidarity with the struggles of independence and decolonization in Africa.

The first recording of Makeba’s where Leopoldo participated was the album Click Song, released in 1966 by the record label Fontana.(3) That same year, he visited Africa for the first time when Makeba performed in Ghana to sing during a meeting of the African Union. Leopoldo told us that in his first trip to Ghana, what most impressed him was “…the smell of the land.” Miriam Makeba was received like royalty in the African countries she visited and during the second half of the 1960s, she had become a worldwide symbol of contemporary African music. Even in countries on this side of the world, Miriam Makeba’s popularity was in full ascent. Leopoldo describes that during a visit to Suriname, Miriam received “an apotheostic welcoming…they brought her in procession to the monument of Kwa Koe, liberator of slaves in Suriname.”

In 1967, Miriam Makeba released a song titled “Pata Pata” (LP Reprise RS6274), which was an unexpected commercial success, and that became her most famous and requested song by the public until the end of her life. “Pata Pata” was the song that ended up opening all the doors to Makeba’s commercial success. Numerous cover versions of the composition have been made, including one version by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico released in 1968 and another featuring the Puerto Rican singer Chayanne released in 1988. The song is a composition by the Zimbabwean Dorothy Masuka, who lived in South Africa from 1947, when she was twelve years old, until the beginning of the 1960s, when she was forced into exile to flee the repression of the South African government. Both Miriam and Dorothy had released versions of the song “Pata Pata” in the marabi style that was popular during the 1950s in South Africa. Nevertheless, the most famous version, and in my opinion, the best, continues to be the 1967 version because of its distinct musical arrangement. The arranger that appears in the album credits is Jerry Ragovoy, but the characteristic rhythm of “Pata Pata” was Leopoldo’s contribution.

Get ready to move your feet to “Pata Pata.” 

Franklin and Makeba have given us the gift of music and of spirit, uplifting us all even when times grew hard. They, along with so many others, represent the indomitable spirit of Black women, who persist—no matter what.  

Join me in comments to share more music from this era, and be sure to check in next week for three more remarkable and undeniable members of musical royalty. Here’s hoping that this music for (and of) the soul will carry you to the polls, and all of us to victory in November.

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