Music fans remember August 16, 1977 as the day the King of Rock 'n Roll, Elvis Presley, died. This year, the day marks another profound loss: Aretha Franklin passed on August 16, 2018 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She may be best known as the "Queen of Soul," but Franklin contributed even more to music. By bringing in elements of gospel, pop, and blues, Franklin transformed soul and R&B, shaping it to her own unique talents. Today artists still try to emulate her vocal style--passionate, wide-ranging, and spine-tingling. The church was at the root of everything she recorded, and the 1972 single "Rock Steady" is no exception.
When Franklin released the album Young, Gifted and Black, the Queen of Soul was at the peak of her powers. Brimming with confidence, the singer tackled blues, soul, gospel, jazz, and pop with her usual aplomb, this time mixing in covers with her own compositions. One example, "Daydreaming," serves as a a light-as-air ode to her burgeoning relationship with the Temptations' Dennis Edwards, A masterful vocalist, Franklin expresses the feeling of being head-over-heels in love by modulating her voice from a whisper to a sigh. Another original tune, "All the King's Horses" uses the "Humpty Dumpty" nursery rhyme to describe a failing relationship. The "wall of security" and "love" collapses, with Franklin's longing voice communicating that once that wall crumbled, no one could "put our two hearts together again."
"Rock Steady" may not contain such clever lyrics as "All the King's Horses," but it does command listeners to dance. In fact, it was released at the dawn of disco, when dance beats mixed with powerful gospel vocals would soon dominate the charts. As AllMusic's Matthew Areenwald writes, "Rock Steady" remains one of Franklin's most "important singles" in that it melds funk and Memphis R&B as well as gospel, resulting in one of the most soulful tracks Franklin ever wrote and recorded.
Top session drummer Bernard Purdie gives a master classic in funk drumming style, keeping a steady beat as Chuck Rainey lays down some tasty bass lines. Donny Hathaway contributes a church-tinged keyboard part as Franklin instructs listeners to "rock steady" in their moves. She announces that she will call this song "exactly what it is," namely a "funky and lowdown feeling." Her description of the dance contains plenty of innuendo, with Franklin ordering the listener to "move your hips from side to side" and to "take a ride." Her voice remains the true star, however, as she answers her backing vocalists the Sweethearts of Soul with her soaring vocals. After she announces that she "might be doin' this funky dance all night," the backing singers continue encouraging the audience to lose themselves in the music. "Let me hear ya gotta feeling in the air / Gotta feeling, and ain't got a care / What fun to take this ride, rock steady will only slide." As they chant these words, Franklin cries out, her voice ascending to express the exhilaration that comes from music. That moment stands as one of Franklin's most breathtaking moments, allowing listeners to ride this funky rollercoaster.
Franklin possessed powerful vocal ability, but she would unleash the magic strategically. Never one to oversing, she could emote James Brown-reminiscent funk in one track, then transition to jazz in the next. Few singers have the skill to handle various genres, but Franklin made her abilities look deceptively easy. Only the Queen of Soul could dazzle audiences with her instrument, which is a major reason why the music world deeply mourns her passing.