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Dear Aretha: “The Soul You Spread Will Never Die”

Letters written to the Queen of Soul reveal what she meant to us

by Courtney Suciu

The death of Aretha Franklin has inspired an outpouring of heartfelt tributes from media outlets and public figures celebrating the life and cultural contributions of the Queen of Soul.

Franklin used her reign to bring attention to the civil rights movement and support the fight for Black freedom (did you know that in 1970, she offered to pay the bail for incarcerated Black Panther activist Angela Davis?1).

But what made her Queen was the larger than life talent and personality that appealed across racial and generational divides. Everyone loved Aretha. And if you have any doubt, witness American royalty in action at her 2016 Lincoln Center performance and skim some of the poignant eulogies that have been recently published:

“Aretha Franklin’s voice is the voice of America. No other contemporary artist embodied the nation's brash optimism with as much flair, nor exemplified its sorrow-forged resilience as convincingly. No one better expressed American joy.” – Ann Powers, NPR music
“Prayer, love, desire, joy, despair, rapture, feminism, Black Power—it is hard to think of a performer who provided a deeper, more profound reflection of her times.” – David Remnick, The New Yorker
“Franklin’s musical influence is immeasurable.” – Laura Snapes and Ben Beaumont-Thomas, The Guardian
“We have lost one of the great artists of our time…She is deeply loved by millions of people as the Queen of Soul. Her voice is still a guiding light to vocalists today.” Rep. John Lewis, Twitter

However, even as these grand, beautifully-written statements encapsulate the qualities that made Franklin an icon, what they lack is the intimate affection everyday people felt for the soul singer.

The only way to really understand what she meant to her fans is to read the words they wrote for her.

Letters to Aretha

1968 was Franklin’s year. She kicked it off with her fifth gold album2. Her songs “Respect” and “Think” came to be anthems for the civil rights and women’s movements. She was featured on the cover of Time magazine – a true measure of “making it” in mainstream media.

She was crowned the Queen of Soul.

Yet despite her supreme superstar status, Franklin wasn’t so big that she no longer seemed human. For her fans, Franklin was a person they admired and aspired to be, but also someone they felt comfortable confiding in, asking favors of, inviting over for dinner. She was family.

We rummaged through the archives of ProQuest History Vault3 to share excerpts from some of our favorite letters and hand-written notes sent to the beloved musical monarch:

“Dear Miss Franklin, I’m inviting you and your sister over for dinner one of these Sundays, on the 17th of March. But if you have something to do on that date write me back and let me know if you can or can’t…I tell everyone you are my cousin and I also say you [are] coming for dinner on the 17th if you could…P.S. Send me your telephone no. Please excuse my handwriting.” – Charlesetta Foreman, Richmond, CA
“Dear Aretha, How are you, Sis?...I went and seen you and your sister at the Cobo Hall and I want to tell you that you and your sister tore that place up. You really did it. I’m just crazy about you, ya know (smile). I really dig your new record “Sweet, Sweet Baby.” I want to know if you can send me a picture of you so I can show it to my friends. I’m 15 and in 9th grade. I have 5 brothers and 4 sisters. How old are you? Are you married? I hope not. I wish I could become a great singer like you. I did have a group but we broke up…” – Angela Moran, Pontiac, MI
“Dear Aretha Franklin: I’m working on report on my favorite recording stars which is due March 19th. I would like to know if you could send me some information an[sic] a picture of you with your autograph. P.S. Could I please have it early as possible because my report is due the 19th of March” – Joyce E. Reese, Detroit, MI (dated March 4!)
“Dear Aretha Franklin…Are you married and do you have children? If you are not married it’s a miracle you’re not because I know a lot of men are chasing you, you’re so pretty. You also wear some fly clothes. Do you have a secretary to read your letters? I know you get a lot of them! You’re so busy I guess you do have a secretary, so if you don’t answer back I will understand (I think). But try to answer back. Please? P.S. I am 13-years-old and would like to join your fan club. – Linda, Cambria Heights, NY
“Dear Miss Franklin…I am an ‘American Fighting Man’ stationed in Viet Nam. What I would like for you to do for me please is send me an autographed picture of yourself…I do admire your style, and I hope the soul you spread will never die. Maybe sometime when you are on stage and singing ‘Respect’ think of a soul brother that calls himself an ‘American fighting man.’ – Don Williams

For further research

Explore dozens more personal letters to Aretha Franklin as well as other primary source documents related to her civil rights activity with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in ProQuest History Vault’s Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century module.

From Ebook Central:

Bego, M. (2012). Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul

Sheafer, S. (2015). Life of Aretha Franklin: Queen of Soul

Ritz, D. (2014). Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin

From Music and Dance Online: American Music Database

Aretha Gospel [Streaming Audio]. (1991). Geffen. (1991). 

From ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global 

A search in this database yields a whopping 1,353 full text dissertations that mention Aretha Franklin in the text, including:

Greene, P. J. (1995). Aretha Franklin: The Emergence of Soul and Black Women's Consciousness in the Late 1960s and 1970s (Order No. 9628813). 

Murphy, M. D. (2011). Detroit Blues Women (Order No. 3466668).

Reali, C. M. (2014). Making Music in Muscle Shoals (Order No. 3622451).

Rhodes, L. L. (2001). Groupies, Girls, and Chicks: Articles on Women Musicians and Fans in “Rolling stone” and Selected Other Mainstream Magazines, 1967–1972 (Order No. 3049257)

Shelton, M. L. (1997). The Nature of a Sista: Representations of African-American Women in Contemporary Culture (Order No. 9816069).

Notes:

  1. “You have to disturb the peace when you ain’t got peace. I have the money and I am going to see Angela free if there is any justice in our courts. I got the money from black people and I would like to use it in a way to help our people. Not because I believe in communism, but because Angela is a black women and she wants freedom for black people” – Aretha Franklin
    'Angela Must Be Free,' Aretha Franklin Says. (1970, Dec 19). Afro-American (1893-1988). Available from ProQuest Black Historical Newspapers.
  2. Aretha Franklin Cops Another Gold Record. (1968, Jan 15). Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973). Available from ProQuest Black Historical Newspapers
  3. ProQuest History Vault, Module: Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: Organizational Records and Personal Papers, Part 1; Collection: Records of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1954-1970, Part 3: Records of the Public Relations Department. Folder: 001566-007-0465
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Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu

23 Aug 2018

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