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Arts & Culture

Buffalo remembers its adopted daughter, Aretha Franklin

National Public Radio
Aretha Franklin on stage at the "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives" premiere at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in April 2017. The singer said she was retiring from performing live.

Condolences and remembrances of Aretha Franklin are coming in from around the world and from her adopted hometown of Buffalo with the news that the Queen of Soul died Thursday morning at the age of 76.

Aretha Franklin may be the Queen of Soul, but she is also the Queen City's adopted daughter.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown remembers growing up to the music of Aretha Franklin and her early years in Buffalo.

"I grew up listening to her music, as generations of people across our country and internationally have grown up, and loved her music," Brown said. "Certainly, Aretha Franklin, known as the "Queen of Soul," some describe her as the greatest singer of all times, her voice will be missed but her songs will continue to live on."

"Buffalo can lay claim to shaping the life of one the greatest singers America has ever produced," said the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame when Franklin was inducted in 2016. "Aretha and her siblings have fond memories of Buffalo. In her autobiography, she recalled the Cold Springs neighborhood she spent time in and her neighbors there."

Franklin moved to Buffalo from Memphis in 1944 at the age of two. Her father, C.L. Franklin, was a pastor at Friendship Baptist Church and did a radio show, "The Voice of Friendship," mixing calls for civil rights with his religious message.

"She had very strong connections to this community and this community always looked at her and embraced her as their own," Brown said.

Buffalo Music Hall of Fame Trustee and musician Van Taylor attended Friendship Baptist Church and heard her at a young age. He said church was the perfect setting to develop her powerful voice.        

"When you sing, you sang. You don't sing, you sang. That's the word. And when you played, you plaaayed, okay. You don't just timidly play. No, you got to mean what you're playing and express that - and Aretha sang in church, and many of my artsists throughout the years, and you clearly hear the difference," Taylor said. "The power of the expression. The emotion that's laid out there. It's like nothing you can imagine."

As Taylor was starting his career in music years later, he said she remembered who he was.

"My uncle took me to a studio in New York where she was recording and she says, 'Hey, Mr. Man. Play something for me,'" Taylor said. "Well I thought she said, 'Hey, Van.' That was, you know, not what it was, but her encouragement is something that I will always remember for the rest of my life, because in this business, you need all the help you can get and all the praise and, you know, just lift up your spirit and that she did for me."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statement, remembering Franklin for what he called "the power of her unforgettable voice to lift up others and shine a light on injustice."

Rev. Jesse Jackson was a friend of Franklin’s for more than 60 years and watched her grow up in church.

“The lead singer in the gospel choir in heaven would be Aretha Franklin,” said Jackson. “As an artist she meant so much.”

Like her father, Jackson said, Aretha was considered a social justice warrior who contributed funds to combat civil rights issues for decades.

“One occasion, when we couldn’t raise the money for our cause - challenging the Vietnam War - and we couldn’t make payroll, she helped make the payroll. She along with (Harry) Belafonte did an 11-city tour,” Jackson said.

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T. She sang Respect. Never Loved a Man. All these songs had uplifting qualities about them," Jackson said. "Never did she sing down to people. She did not sing downgrade music. Like I am blue, but I will not be blue always.”

Taylor said they were almost able to get Franklin here for her induction into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame in 2016.

“But she still had health issues then going up and down, "he said. "So it was kind of, maybe, but it was a beautiful thing to induct her.”

Franklin moved from Buffalo to Detroit in the late 1940s. Shortly after, her mother separated from her father and moved back to Buffalo. Franklin’s mother is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

“A lot of time people say, ‘I thought I saw Aretha Franklin,’" said Taylor. “Well, you did. She came back every year and she has many friends here and some relatives. She always came back. She always went to Forest Lawn and she didn’t miss. Now she’s in heaven and they’re together.”

The Queen of Soul was the first woman elected to the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame, but she could do it all - jazz, pop, R&B, even opera. Her performance of "Nessun Dorma" at the 1998 Grammy’s stands as a reminder of the well-rounded musician.

Producer Ken Ehlrich can still recall the night when Franklin wowed the world by filling in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti with less than two hours notice. Just before she did it, she squeezed his hand and told him, "This is gonna be fun." It was more than that, it was legendary.

Her official website includes a behind-the-scenes video of Franklin working on "A Brand New Me" in October 2017.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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