In the glory days of Detroit, the wild 1950s and ‘60s, we made music and we made cars. Those two things seem disconnect, but without the auto industry you wouldn’t have the melding of sounds that caused the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, to light up a grey industrial town in the midwest and, eventually, the world.
My own family left the west side of Detroit in the ‘90s. I didn’t have a great love for the city then, though I certainly do now. Growing up there was hard and at times frightening. The nightly news piped into our suburban tri-level following our flight regularly confirmed it; Detroit was dead.
And then I heard Aretha Franklin.
Aretha Franklin’s story is a classic Detroit story. She was born in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee. She came into the world during what is known as The Great Migration, a time from roughly between 1916 and 1970 when black southerners began to move to the industrial cities in the north looking for a better life.
While migrating north, black Americans brought their musical traditions like jazz, soul, gospel and blues with them. Chicago and Detroit began to be known not just for cars, steel mills and (slightly) less overt racism, but for music as well. As the black population grew so, too, did the demand for churches that would be at the center of the community. Aretha’s family moved to Detroit when she was 5 years old to follow her father’s preaching career. It was in a Detroit Baptist church that Aretha found her voice, and originally her albums were spiritual music until she signed with Columbia Records in 1961.
It’s a common misconception that Aretha was signed with Motown, but that’s because her music grew up around similar influences to Motown tunes. Songs like ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You) start with a church organ in a similar way to ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ by Marvin Gaye, for instance. All of these influences merged together to make a soulful pop sound with an industrial-precision beat, like hydraulic presses at a factory, with what Aretha called her “lady wail” coming through loud and clear. Her music was a tapestry of Detroit.
I didn’t know this history until I grew up enough to understand the stories she was telling. She was mournful, lost in love and taking no shit all at the same time. As a teenager I began to think if music like this can come from this city, it can’t be all bad. I became captivated with the time and place when Detroit was filled with music and people. I read every book I could and started crossing over 8 Mile as soon as I got my driver’s license, much to the dismay of my parents. Today, on the day Aretha Franklin died in her home in Detroit at 76, I am writing this from my own home on Detroit’s west side.
None of our stories are linear nor isolated. We all mesh and build together in our time and place. Detroit was in Aretha and her art, and Aretha is part of Detroit. Aretha’s voice, filled with heartfelt vulnerability and courage, guided me home. She has an effect on the people here, and probably always will. Her lady wail will reverberate in all of us for a long time to come.