From the very earliest moments of Aretha Franklin’s career that we have available to us on video and audio recording, you can see it.
As a somber young woman standing in the front of a congregation wracked with grief over the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., tenderly crooning words of comfort and healing into a bank of microphones, you can see it.
As a vibrant young woman at the height of her career belting out a demand for R-E-S-P-E-C-T that became a battle cry for the Civil Rights and women’s movements, you can see it.
As a mature woman shrugging the full length fur coat from her shoulders, leaving it an expensive puddle in the floor at her feet as her voice soars with such power and resonance that the president of the United States of America is reduced to tears, you can see it.
The it? Moxie, of course. In every performance, in every stage of her long career, moxie beamed from the very presence of Aretha Franklin. It was in the unquestioning command she had of every room she played, from the most intimate club venue to the pulpit to the largest concert hall. It was in the magnificent virtuosity she demonstrated with her voice, which so nimbly expressed every possible human emotion in nearly every possible genre, from gospel to opera.
What was the secret to Franklin’s moxie? I wish I’d had the chance to ask her. Here’s what I’ve gathered from hearing more about her work and life.
Maybe moxie is inherited.
If you’ve heard Aretha, you’ve heard her father.
If you listen to recordings of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, you can hear clear echoes of his daughter in the rhythmic, melodic cadence of his preaching and the rich, resonant tone of his voice. The famed preacher was the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, and was in high demand as a guest speaker across the country during the civil rights era, earning as much as $4000 for an appearance.
It was Rev. Franklin who mentored his daughter and guided her career early on. He gave her a place on his pulpit to sing when she was still so tiny she needed a footstool to stand on so she could be seen by the congregation. He who took her on the road with him to sing when he preached. When she told him she wanted to turn to secular music, he helped her make the right connections and understand the recording business.
Franklin remained extraordinarily close to her father throughout his life, calling him several times a day well into adulthood.
If you are a parent, understand that you have extraordinary power to pass on your gifts to your children, and the power to encourage those gifts to grow. But even more importantly, you have the ability to instill moxie in them, and encourage it to grow, too.
Moxie doesn’t shield you from sorrow.
Franklin’s performances were so powerful perhaps because they weren’t entirely performances. She wasn’t imagining the emotions she conveyed with such authenticity; she was drawing from the deep well of her own experiences.
Franklin’s first big heartbreak came when her parents divorced when she was just six and her mother moved away to New York. Before she was ten, her mother died of a heart attack. Franklin was surrounded by a loving family, but the loss of a parent is profound and leaves deep and lasting pain.
As her talent blossomed and her career began to grow, so did that of her sisters Erma and Caroline. When it came to singing, Aretha felt an intense rivalry with her sisters. Erma was a Grammy-nominated artist in her own right, and Caroline wrote songs for Aretha including classic hits “Ain’t No Way” and “Angel.” Though the sisters worked and collaborated together, in was clear that Aretha suffered some insecurity and fear, and that must have led to painful moments.
Franklin also became a mother very young, giving birth to two sons while she was in her early teens. She went on to an abusive marriage, and the breakup of a second marriage later.
But Franklin used her moxie to communicate that pain with pathos and power, and in doing so she gave voice to the complex emotions of millions of others. To hear her sing was to hear her give voice to your own powerful feelings, in a way you couldn’t possibly express.
Moxie has boundaries.
If I’d had the chance to interview the Queen of Soul, there’s a lot I wouldn’t have had the permission – nor perhaps even the courage – to ask. It might have seemed like Aretha threw wide the gates to her soul in live performances, but off stage was another matter. She had a whole host of topics that were just plain off limits.
She did not discuss the circumstances surrounding the birth of the older two of her four children, who were born when Franklin was a young teen and were mostly looked after by her grandmother and sister.
She did not talk about the death of her father, who passed away after lingering for years in a coma after being shot in a robbery attempt. During the last few years of his life, Franklin frequently commuted from her home in Los Angeles to be by his bedside in Detroit. She eventually chose to move back to the Motor City just to be near him. When he finally died, Franklin refused to talk about it, even with those closest to her.
As her health began to decline in her later years, she refused to discuss her condition even as rumors swirled that she had cancer. Health is a personal matter, she maintained, and needs to be kept private.
In a world of oversharing, Franklin drew clear boundaries and demanded that they be respected. That takes moxie – not just in keeping prying gossip rags and paparazzi at bay, but in self-discipline, too. Franklin had ownership of herself and she made no apologies for it.
What’s your favorite Aretha Franklin song?