PEI

Aretha Franklin's R-E-S-P-E-C-T for Lucy Maud's beloved book

On the second anniversary of the death of Aretha Franklin, a Halifax scholar on the Queen of Soul explores the singer's passion for Anne of Green Gables and her unrealized desire to visit PEI. 
Acclaimed singer Aretha Franklin, who died two years ago today, once told an interviewer she felt an affinity for Lucy Maud Montgomery's plucky orphan Anne Shirley. (Élana Camille for CBC)

On the second anniversary of the death of Aretha Franklin, a Halifax scholar on the Queen of Soul explores the singer's passion for Anne of Green Gables and her unrealized desire to visit PEI. 

In a scene hardly imaginable when Aretha Louise Franklin was born, the Royal Band of Welsh Guards honoured her life by playing "Respect" — her signature song — outside of Buckingham Palace on the morning she was laid to rest.  Age 76, Franklin died of pancreatic cancer two years ago today. 

I later met with a longtime fan of the singer who'd not seen footage of the band — resplendent in red tunics and bearskin hats — grooving on the tune that Rolling Stone magazine ranked among the greatest of all time. 

"Unbelievable," said the woman, as she watched the moving tribute on my cellphone. "A salute from the Queen of England to the Queen of Soul. I know Aretha loved it." 

Rendition made Franklin a legend

"Respect" achieved modest success for Otis Redding who first recorded it in 1965.  But it was Franklin's rousing 1967 rendition with its R-E-S-P-E-C-T spelling lesson and rapid-fire "sock it to me" background licks (sung by her sisters Carolyn and Erma) that topped the charts and emerged as an anthem for the civil rights and feminist movements. About the release that secured Franklin's title as the Queen of Soul, Redding reportedly lamented: "That girl stole my song." 

In a career that spanned six decades, Franklin also put her soulful stamp on tunes by artists such as The Beatles ("Eleanor Rigby") and Stephen Stills ("Love The One You're With").

She made global headlines after a 1998 Grammy Awards appearance during which she stepped in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and sang "Nessun Dorma," an operatic aria by Puccini. At the final note, the audience leapt to its feet. "She anointed it," an observer told me, referencing Franklin's gospel roots as the daughter of a prominent Baptist minister in Detroit. 

As for Afrocentric culture, stylish millinery has long been celebrated in the historic Black church. Wowed by the grey pillbox (with a spectacular crystal-studded bow) that Franklin wore while performing at his 2009 inauguration, former US President Barack Obama plans to display the hat at his presidential library. "I think that's exactly where it should be," noted Luke Song, designer of the now iconic head piece. "She loved Obama."  

Can-do like Anne

The singer's admiration for the nation's first African-American president was not unexpected. But Franklin surprised many when, in a nod to Black worship traditions, she let loose with a "praise break" for a novel by Prince Edward Island native Lucy Maud Montgomery. "I love Anne of Green Gables," she told a Toronto Star reporter, in 2014. "I have for years."

The Queen of Soul continued: "That's one of my favourite things. She's such a can-do kind of girl, that's why I'm crazy about her. And that Gilbert Blythe? He's a charmer. And Marilla, a lady who knows just how she wants things to go. Oh yes, I think I can appreciate that as well. I just think I'd like to see the place they all came from." 

Mindful that Franklin was famously reluctant to discuss her private life, I was struck by the poignancy of her self-proclaimed love for the red-haired, freckle-faced protagonist of Montgomery's 1908 classic novel. Although invited by then Premier Robert Ghiz, the singer never visited Prince Edward Island where she surely would have revelled in the province's myriad Anne of Green Gables attractions. Picture the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at a performance of Anne of Green Gables — The Musical. Alas, it never came to pass.  

Hence, as a speaker at the 2018 LM Montgomery Institute conference held, biennially, at UPEI, I explored the "harmonious bond" between the unlikely pair. I ventured that Franklin saw in the orphaned Anne Shirley a reflection of herself as a girl whose mother — dismayed by marital woes — left the family when the future singer was age six and died a few years later.

"She was a traumatized child," noted a former staffer for Franklin. "Seeing Aretha in her father's church … her eyes were filled with sadness. Then when she got up to sing, this sound came out. … Beautifully mature." 

Franklin countered her sorrows with an unshakeable self-confidence fortified by her ferocious talent. Like the fictional Anne Shirley (who fulfilled her desire for puffed sleeves), the Queen of Soul cultivated a "can-do" attitude that, despite setbacks, catapulted her to international stardom. Indeed, shortly before replacing Pavarotti, Franklin, nonplussed, reportedly told the (nerve-wracked) Grammy show producer: "This is going to be fun." 

Fast forward and, in 2010, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) named asteroid 249516 Aretha in celebration of the singer's stellar achievements. It continues to travel in space. 

Desire to connect

I remain intrigued by Franklin's affection for Anne of Green Gables — a book not widely read by African-American women of her generation. 

An expert on fictional characters, audiences, and identity offered insights about the novel's appeal for the singer.  "Celebrities are people," Bradley Bond, a Communications Studies professor at the University of San Diego, told me in an email exchange. "And people have an instinctive desire to connect with others. … If a celebrity feels a connection to a fictional character [she], will have the same desire to know their past and to live their experiences."

After my conference speech, I later attended a reception. There, with a beer in hand, Blair MacDonald introduced himself to me as the great-grandson of Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Noting that his buddies had often razzed him about his red-haired "cousin," MacDonald, now 43, confessed that he'd made a social media post about my lecture as I was still speaking. 

I was so excited to learn that Aretha Franklin liked my great-grandmother's book.- Blair MacDonald to author Evelyn C. White

"I was so excited to learn that Aretha Franklin liked my great-grandmother's book that I couldn't help myself," he apologized. "It's definitely one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me." 

Since Franklin's death, I've also connected with her niece, Sabrina Owens.

"She was a voracious reader," said Owens, about her famous aunt.  "We talked about books all the time. I know she read biographies of Princess Diana, Jacqueline Kennedy, Barack and Michelle Obama. She liked books about people in powerful positions or who led interesting lives.

"I never heard Aunt Aretha  speak about it, but I'm not surprised that she read Anne of Green Gables."

About the Author

Evelyn C. White

Evelyn C. White

Halifax journalist Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life. She is passionate about PEI Lucky Lime oysters.

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