Aretha Franklin, touchstone voice of the Motor City, dies at 76
DETROIT -- Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul whose voice and music became a touchstone of the Motor City's car culture and Detroit 3 marketing efforts, died Thursday. The Memphis-born singer and longtime resident of the Detroit area was 76.
Franklin, the daughter of a preacher, used her roots in gospel and later soul to become a musical genius and help shape American pop music for generations, while becoming an influential force in Detroit and its signature industry.
Franklin, affectionately dubbed "Lady Soul," "Soul Sister No. 1" and the "Queen of Soul" by critics and fans alike, starred in a number of ads, including a 1980s anthem for Chevrolet, which fell under the brand's national "Heartbeat of America" campaign. It dominated the nation's family rooms when the fall TV season began in October 1988.
Bill Ludwig, former CEO of longtime Chevy ad agency Campbell Ewald, worked with Franklin on the ad campaign. He discovered she was much more than just an amazing voice.
"We thought we were going to get Aretha Franklin the singer," said Ludwig, who was creative director of the agency at the time. "We didn't realize we were going to get Aretha Franklin the arranger and producer and director."
The colors, graphics and tune of the minutelong advertisement are quintessentially '80s, but Franklin's powerhouse vocals are unmistakable.
"She brought incredibly high standards to the recording," Ludwig said. "She didn't just perform vocals -- she was orchestra leader for the entire band, she produced the track over the engineer's shoulder. She did everything. Listen to her performance. It was amazing. What she put into it was amazing."
'Freeway of Love'
Franklin's award-winning song, "Freeway of Love," released in 1985, is another celebration of rolling Detroit metal and spotlights the manufacturing of several vehicles of the 1970s, including the Ford Mustang and Cadillac Cimarron. The song spent 19 weeks on Billboard's Hot 100 chart and was a Top 5 hit in 1985. The streetwise lyrics and black and white video paid homage to Detroit and became one of the most popular driving tunes of all time:
... Oh, we got some places to see
I brought all the maps with me
So jump right in, it ain't no sin
Take a ride in my machine
City traffic movin' way too slow
Drop the pedal and go, go, go
We goin' ridin' on the freeway of love
Wind's against our backs
We goin' ridin' on the freeway of love
In my pink Cadillac ...
At its core, the video conceptualizes Detroit's joyful, industrial spirit. Mechanics dance in harmony as Franklin sings alongside saxophonist Clarence Clemons, with a young Randy Jackson, later an "American Idol" judge, on bass.
For more coverage of Franklin's death from Crain's Detroit Business, an affiliate of Automotive News, click here.
For a compilation of Franklin's greatest commercials from Advertising Age, click here.
Parts of the video were shot at Doug's Body Shop in Ferndale, Mich., according to the Detroit Free Press, and includes scenes from the headquarters of General Motors, the Ford Rouge plant, and the giant Uniroyal tire in Allen Park, Mich.
'Take a Ride'
Rock steady, baby
That's what I feel now
Just call the song exactly what it is
Just move your hips with a feeling from side to side
Sit yourself down in your car and take a ride
While you're moving, rock steady
Rock steady, baby
Let's call this song exactly what it is (what it is, what it is, what it is)
It's a funky and lowdown feeling (what it is)
In the hips from left to right (what it is)
Committed to Detroit
A true optimist, Franklin was vocal in her unwavering support and commitment to the city, with high hopes for GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
"Between new and dynamic leadership with the Big 3, the private sector and a little help from D.C., Detroit's best and most glorious days are still ahead," Franklin, weighing in on the city's bankruptcy, said in 2013.
"Aretha Franklin has had such an impact on the community over the years," the Rev. Robert Smith Jr. told the Detroit Free Press. "Countless people have been given hope for life because of her singing, and the way her voice has made every guy and every girl feel like they could make it."
As a teenager, Franklin regularly performed with her father, Clarence, a renowned Baptist minister, in gospel programs throughout the U.S. Her mother, Barbara, a gospel singer and pianist, died when Franklin was 10.
Born in 1942, Franklin wooed crowds with her bell-clear, four-octave vocal range and garnered nearly every accolade for musical achievement -- from top-selling albums to multiple Grammys. Her powerful voice and soulful blend of rhythm and blues and gospel music was once described as one of the glories of American music by The New York Times. She was the first woman enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Michigan declared Franklin's voice a natural resource in 1986.
Her six-decade career produced iconic hits ranging from the fervid "Respect" -- a seering assertion of selfhood to herald the women's movement -- to the sensual "A Natural Woman," that have stood the test of time and electrified crowds across the country.
In 1965, it was Franklin who suggested a new title for a song that would became a calling card for the first pony car: "Mustang Sally." It was written by Mack Rice, who initially called it "Mustang Mama," according to the Commercial Appeal, taking note of the chorus. Franklin played piano on the song's original demo.
It wasn't until the next year when the song rose to new heights, gaining national popularity when it was covered by Wilson Pickett.
In 1995, Franklin performed at Radio City Music Hall where she was "showered with commemorative silver coins," during the finale, Automotive News reported in 1995.
The concert, planned by Ford's regional sales manager, Bob Lusko, drew 250 Ford dealers and 6,000 customers and others to help introduce the 1996 Ford Taurus. Marketing efforts targeted customers whose leases were about to expire.
"She (Franklin) told them to stand on their seats and dance," Lusko said in 1995, "and they did it."
Crain's Detroit Business and Alexa St. John contributed to this report.
Send us a letter
Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.