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Aretha Franklin wins Pulitzer special citation

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News
Aretha Franklin

The Queen of Soul, Detroit’s own Aretha Franklin, has added another jewel to her crown. The Pulitzer committee honored her in the Special Awards and Citations category in the Arts on Monday “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.”

The Pulitzer honor is for all of her works over five decades of music making.

“We’re very thrilled and excited about it,” said Sabrina Garrett Owens, Aretha’s niece and estate representative. “This is almost as exciting as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I understand that they’ve only given 75 of these awards out.”

Franklin died of complications from pancreatic cancer last August. She was 76.

Women have received Pulitzers for individual music (including composer Ellen Reid, who won the Pulitzer in music this year), but Franklin is the first woman to be honored with a special citation in the arts. The award is not bestowed every year; the last person honored was the late country singer/songwriter Hank Williams in 2010.

Previous recipients include George Gershwin (1998), Duke Ellington (1999), John Coltrane (2007) and Bob Dylan (2008).

She also was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

“It is amazing that it’s almost 2020, and there are still instances where someone is the first woman for this, or the first woman for that,” said Owens. “Aretha is still opening doors and knocking down barriers for women.”

“She certainly should have gotten one before Dylan,” sniffed author and music critic Caryn Rose, who writes for Billboard and the Guardian. “I just wish we had a better record of getting people their flowers while they were alive. It wasn’t ever in doubt that Aretha deserved this award, but did they need her to die to recognize it?”

Her family can add the special citation Pulitzer to Aretha’s 18 Grammy Awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

She recorded gospel for Joe von Battle’s Detroit-based JVB Records and for Chess Records. In 1960,  Franklin signed to Columbia, where she recorded seven albums of jazz-pop. Those albums have been rediscovered and given their due more in recent years, after a re-release in 2011 as a boxed set.

Atlantic Records picked her up in 1966, and a breathtaking string of hits including “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),” “Respect” and “Chain of Fools,” earned her the crown of Queen of Soul. A later stint at Arista Records, under the supervision of Clive Davis, gave her a new, more modern sound with hits such as “Freeway of Love.”

The Pulitzer honor comes just as a luminous 29-year-old Aretha can be seen in theaters across the country in the documentary film “Amazing Grace,” singing the gospel music she first learned in the choir of her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church.

The film is in select Metro Detroit theaters now, including the Maple in Bloomfield Township, and has a wider release Friday. The timing couldn’t be better.

“My mother (Aretha’s sister Erma) used to always say, 'Aretha had God’s favor on her life,' and I really do believe that,” Owens said.

Susan Whitall is a veteran Detroit author and journalist.