Gay men have long been attracted to strong female figures, especially those in the entertainment field. From Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand to Lady Gaga and Kesha, divas have enjoyed huge gay followings; and gay drag queens continue to honor them by impersonating them.
One artist who is curiously missing from most gay diva lists is Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Franklin burst upon the music scene in 1967, just as 14-year-old me began my record collection. Coming from six so-so years with Columbia Records, Aretha started out under the guidance of Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler. From 1967 to 1969 Franklin could do no wrong, turning out hit songs like “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “A Natural Woman” and “Think.”
To a queer boy then reaching puberty and realizing his own difference, Aretha Franklin struck a chord with her songs of power and defiance. Along with James Brown, Franklin was the musical personification of the civil rights movement. Aretha also prefigured feminism with her no-nonsense approach to female-male relationships. Aretha’s musical foremothers, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, had man problems and died young. Though Franklin had her own trouble man - namely her no-good first husband, Ted White - she got rid of the lout just as her music was earning her universal R-E-S-P-E-C-T. In 1967 Aretha took “Respect” from Otis Redding, who wrote it as his take on marital problems, and turned it into a universal declaration of pride: for African-Americans, for women, for everyone - even for a 14-year old Cuban gayboy in Miami.
Unlike Tina Turner, whose slim build and curvy legs made her a favorite among straight boys, Aretha Franklin was never a sex symbol. On the other hand, to us gays Aretha’s zaftig figure was never an issue; it only made her more human and more appealing. Luther Vandross, who had his own weight problems, grew up admiring Queen Re, and as a result became a talented singer and composer in his own right. Franklin is no fashion plate, and female impersonators do not win pageants by trying to look like her. This did not prevent a popular seventies South Florida drag act from becoming famous as “Mr. Aretha,” a tribute from one queen to another.
In 1969 Franklin’s music took a downturn, and hostile critics declared that her career over. But she recovered in time to enjoy a musical renaissance with songs like “Call Me,” “Don’t Play that Song,” “Spanish Harlem” and “Rock Steady.” Many of her hits were recorded in Miami, where Wexler retired to in 1969. These were the years when I went to college, became a U.S. citizen, and came out. Here again, Aretha Franklin provided the soundtrack of my life.
Aretha and I parted company during the disco era. It was not a good time for the Queen of Soul, who made a series of wretched albums for a now-uncaring Atlantic. I only began to buy Aretha records again after 1980, the year that she signed a contract with Clive Davis’s Arista Records. For Arista, Franklin got back on track, recording hits like “Jump To It,” “Get It Right” and “Freeway of Love” and singing duets with Elton John, George Michael and Luther Vandross: boys who, like this much-less musically talented writer, grew up listening to the Queen.
Though Franklin reached her peak in the sixties, she continues to be a force in American music. She has survived weight issues, health issues, fashion disasters, her fear of flying and her dislike for other divas. In 1987 she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. And she continues to provide pleasure and inspiration to millions of fans, myself included. Five decades after “Respect,” she remains the undisputed Queen of Soul.