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.
You can see you 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.
As a mature woman shrugging the full-length fur coat from her shoulders, leaving it an expensive puddle on the floor at her feet, 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. So it was in her unquestioning command 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 conceivable genre, from gospel to opera.
What was the secret to Franklin’s moxie? I wish I’d had the chance to ask her. Instead, 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 listened to 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.
Rev. Franklin 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 the congregation could see her. 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 into adulthood.
If you are a parent, understand that you have extraordinary power to pass on your gifts to your children and the ability to encourage those gifts to grow. But even more importantly, you can instill moxie in them and encourage them to grow.
Moxie doesn’t shield you from sorrow.
Franklin’s performances were so powerful, perhaps because they weren’t entirely performances. She didn’t imagine the emotions she conveyed with such authenticity; she drew 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. Then, before she was ten, her mother died of a heart attack. A loving family surrounded Franklin, 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. However, 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, it was clear that Aretha suffered some insecurity and fear, which must have led to painful moments.
Franklin also became a mother very young, giving birth to two sons in her early teens. But, unfortunately, she went on to an abusive marriage and broke up 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 listen to her give voice to your 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, born when Franklin was a young teen and mainly looked after by her grandmother and sister.
She did not talk about her father’s death, 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 moved back to the Motor City just to be near him. However, Franklin refused to talk about it when he finally died, even with those closest to her.
As her health began to decline later, she refused to discuss her condition even as rumors swirled that she had cancer. Instead, she maintained health is a personal matter 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?