Finding Aretha’s Voice

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Wisdom for all days:

“I was asked what recording of mine I’d put in a time capsule, and it was Respect. Because people want respect—even small children, even babies. As people, we deserve respect from one another.”

— Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, who united us with her spirit and music

The Conversation

How Aretha Franklin found her voice

August 18, 2018

Adam Gustafson

Instructor in Music, Pennsylvania State University

Disclosure statement

Adam Gustafson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


Pennsylvania State University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.

Vocal juggernaut. Social activist. Artistic collaborator. Diva.

As Aretha Franklin is laid to rest, the Queen of Soul will deservedly be remembered in an array of tributes reflecting the immense legacy of her life and music.

Her voice is ingrained in the canon of American music, and she’s had a number of staggering accomplishments. But to me, one period of her career stands out as the most significant: the years after she left the world of gospel music.

Her jump to mainstream music meant a move into a segment of the industry that was dominated by men who had very specific assumptions about how a woman should sing – and what she should sing about.

Franklin’s ability to assert control over her career was a watershed moment for female artists seeking to find and maintain their own artistic voice.

Columbia tries to mold a starlet

Aretha Franklin began her career in Detroit singing gospel under the tutelage of her father, C.L. Franklin. As a teenage mother of two in the mid-1950s, sticking with gospel would have been a sensible path for the young singer.

During the 1950s, a number of gospel singers began successfully transitioning into secular music, including notables such as Sam Cooke and Willie Mae Thornton. The ambitious Franklin followed suit and left Detroit for New York City.

In 1960, Aretha Franklin signed a contract with Columbia Records after being pursued by John Hammond, a talent executive who, earlier in his career, had signed Billie Holiday.

At Columbia, Franklin recorded her first non-gospel album, “Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo,” which was released in February 1961. Reviews were mixed. It wasn’t so much the quality of the record as it was the hodgepodge nature of its tracks.

The album opens with “Won’t Be Long,” a song written by John Leslie McFarland, who penned a number of hits for 1950s rockers like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.

The track is a streamlined piece of R&B with a tinge of rock ‘n’ roll thrown in for good measure. Franklin’s role on the song – and the album – is entirely as a vocalist. The keyboard playing and song arrangements – two of Franklin’s particular strengths – were left to her male backing ensemble and production crew.

‘Won’t Be Long’ is a peppy song, but it doesn’t exactly showcase Franklin’s talents.

As much as the song rocks, it plays into the same male fantasy of girls pining away for boys who have run off.

“I get so lonesome since the man has been gone,” she sings, echoing a tired trope. Despite the message, it’s Franklin’s voice – jubilant and strong – that takes over. By the end, the meaning no longer matters. What’s left is Franklin, who clearly doesn’t seem all that bothered about the idea of her man staying or leaving.

After “Won’t Be Long,” things get truly odd. The energy of the opening fizzles as Franklin’s cover of “Over the Rainbow” begins. The juxtaposition of these two songs epitomizes the confusing nature of her first album. It’s almost as if the executives at Columbia couldn’t decide which silo of “feminine popular singer” Franklin should occupy, so they tried a bit of everything.

The rest of the album sustains the same random vibe; Franklin covers standards from Gershwin to Meredith Wilson, with an overdose of McFarland tunes in between.

The album didn’t generate much traction, and her career at Columbia can only be described as frustrating, with her artistic impulses continually suppressed by a company that seemingly wanted to mold a starlet rather than an artist.

Setting Franklin free

Franklin became exasperated with a label that didn’t understand or support the music she was trying to create. By 1966, after nine albums, Columbia and Aretha Franklin parted ways.

Enter Jerry Wexler, the R&B pioneer and Atlantic Records executive who’d been closely following Franklin’s career. Now free of Columbia, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records, which was known as one of the best R&B labels in America.

Wexler’s strategy with Franklin was simple. Rather than attempting to adhere to older standards – as Columbia’s producers were prone to do – Wexler would simply stay out of Franklin’s way, giving her a freedom that led to her creating some of the most exciting and forward-thinking soul music of the era.

A key moment came when Wexler arranged a recording session at the legendary FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

The FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Library of Congress

That session produced the song “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You,” which was recorded live at the studio. Thematically, “I Never Loved a Man” isn’t all that different from the Columbia release of “Won’t Be Long” – it essentially plays into same male fantasy trope.

But the music is clearly about Franklin.

Utilizing musicians from Muscle Shoals and Memphis’ Stax Records, the song contains a grit and energy that isn’t on the Columbia recordings. With punctuating horns and bluesy guitar fills, the band expertly supports Franklin without overstepping.

‘Everything came together for Franklin in Muscle Shoals.’

While “I Never Loved a Man” may have been the first song released and the title of the album, it was the album’s opening track that truly launched Franklin’s star.

Drop the needle on the album, and you’ll hear horns and a spunky guitar riff. As Franklin sets in to the opening lyric – “What you want, baby I got it” – her piano can be heard hitting like a second drum kit, adding a percussive boom to the entire song.

According to Wexler, the idea to cover “Respect” and the arrangement were Franklin’s. Upon hearing the song that many now herald as a feminist anthem – rather than a song about a relationship – Otis Redding, who wrote the tune, infamously told Jerry Wexler, “That little gal done took my song.”

The rest is history.

Ohio treasurer candidates would expand office’s role

Sunday, August 19

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Two candidates for Ohio treasurer have very different ideas about how they would run the office.

Democrat Rob Richardson wants to take a more expanded and active role as treasurer, while Republican Robert Sprague takes a more traditional, but updated, view of the job, The Columbus Dispatch reported .

Richardson, 39, is a securities litigation attorney from Cincinnati. Sprague, 45, is a four-term state representative from Findlay. Both are vying to succeed Republican Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, who is term-limited.

Richardson says he would use the office to oppose state spending and investment in private prisons and in for-profit charter school. He says he also would also push drug companies to pay more to fight the opioid crisis.

“I see this office and the role as treasurer as an ability to hold the powerful accountable and to make sure we are addressing the problems of this state that I think the legislature has failed,” he told the newspaper’s editorial board.

Sprague said he would promote and fiscal expand transparency while guarding the state’s investments, plus bring “smart and innovative” ideas to the office.

Sprague said he will guard the state’s investments while embracing transparency. He also says he’ll bring new ideas.

“In the treasurer’s office you’re in charge of the people’s checkbook,” he told Dispatch editors. “It’s important to be transparent, but it’s also important to be innovative and smart, and I think that every statewide officeholder in their respective positions needs to bring fresh bread to the table and new ideas to help deal with Ohio’s biggest problems.”

Sprague aims to spur more private investment in drug treatment, an issue he prioritized as a lawmaker.

He proposes creating “social impact bonds” to reimburse private investors for their initial costs if a treatment program proves successful. They also could be used to promote private investment in fighting other problems, including infant mortality, he said.

Richardson also proposes to retain and expand Mandel’s signature online checkbook, as well as using it to highlight tax dollars spent on for-profit entities, such as prisons and charter schools.

He also wants to use it to shed more light on state pension funds, detailing investments and showing payments to private lawyers and investment managers.

Richardson also backs opportunity-fund zones to encourage private investment in depressed areas and expansion of low-interest student loans.

Cole Essig of Westerville named to Lawrence University dean’s list

APPLETON, WI (08/20/2018)— Cole Essig, son of Amy Essig, Westerville, has been named to the Lawrence University dean’s list for the 2017-18 academic year. Students must maintain a minimum 3.4 grade point average for the entire academic year to qualify for dean’s list honors.

About Lawrence University

Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.” Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.

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From slag to swag: The story of Earl Tupper’s fantastic plastics

August 14, 2018 6.32am EDT

A postcard from the 1950s advertises a variety Tupperware products. Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC


Marsha Bryant

Professor of English & Distinguished Teaching Scholar, University of Florida

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Marsha Bryant does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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When “American Horror Story,” the Museum of Modern Art and “Napoleon Dynamite” pay homage to an invention, you know it’s made a cultural impact in a big way.

Tupperware has a staying power that most plastic products don’t. So far, it has evaded the anti-plastics movement, and it seems to survive most kitchen clean-outs. Its annual sales exceed US$2 billion.

I’ve taught the story of Tupperware products in a course on the American 1950s. I’m also teaching it in the polymers unit of an interdisciplinary course in materials science engineering.

Tupperware products’ ability to bridge the humanities and STEM fields speaks to their cultural and utilitarian value – evidence of how a compelling, innovative design can have mass appeal.

Polyethylene – ‘Material of the Future’

Our relationships with plastics can be as richly diverse as the shapes and colors these malleable materials can assume.

Technically speaking, plastics are pliable, ductile and flexible synthetic materials that are easily shaped through heat and other applications of force. The word “plastic” also has an aesthetic meaning: A plastic actor is more versatile before the camera, and a medium such as stone can become plastic in an artist’s hands.

Literary and cultural critic Roland Barthes saw modern plastics as a form of alchemy – a way to transmute matter in seemingly infinite ways.

“More than a substance,” he wrote in “Mythologies,” “plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation.”

Barthes imagined polystyrene, polyvinyl and polyethylene as Greek shepherds in a world of gods and monsters – magical materials alive with possibility.

Earl Tupper, inventor of Tupperware products, saw such promise in polyethylene – the plastic he used to craft his inventions – that he called it “Poly-T: Material of the Future,” as Alison J. Clarke notes in her book “Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America.”

After failing at his first business as a tree surgeon, Tupper decided to try his hand at plastics production. In 1937, he got a gig as a sample maker at a Dupont-affiliated plastics factory.

At the time, DuPont employed amateur sample makers to further research and development. They could even take scrap materials home with them to work on new prototypes – a mutually beneficial arrangement, Clarke points out.

So when working with injection molding machines at the factory failed to yield the plastic Tupper envisioned, he turned to his home kitchen and tried the stovetop.

It’s all about the lid

The polyethylene that Tupper brought home from the factory was an industrial waste product – opaque, greasy, clumpy black slag. It was hardly the stuff that marketing dreams are made of. Tupper sought to overcome such material limitations by producing a plastic more durable than molded transparent styrene; he wanted to create something that could flex without cracking or snapping.

He and his son boiled the scrap samples at home, eventually finding the right balance of pressure and temperature so the polyethylene flowed into the desired shapes and thickness. Tupper also fashioned a system for dyeing his containers in pastel colors.

Eventually, Tupper was able to create what author Bob Kealing referred to as “a polished, waxy, upscale plastic.”

But he still needed the right lid – something that could both preserve food and prevent spills.

Earl Tupper got the idea for his famous lid from paint cans. Giuntini Jonathan, CC BY-NC-ND

Inspired by paint cans, Tupper fashioned a flexible polyethylene lid that, when snapped onto the container, created an airtight seal. As Kealing points out, this worked much better than tin foil or a shower cap – materials many American women had relied on to cover their leftovers.

In 1947, Tupper patented the nonsnap lid for his first plastic container.

Legendary saleswoman Brownie Wise – the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week – would demonstrate how to “burp” the container by lifting part of the patented lid before sealing it. Her direct sales acumen made Tupper’s product come alive. At her iconic “Tupperware parties,” she would toss liquid-filled Wonder Bowls across American living rooms, astonishing housewives with the airtight seal that prevented spills.

A 1958 ad markets Tupperware parties and showcases the air-tight seal.

From pantry shelf to gallery shelf

In the 1972 film “Design Q&A,” designer Ray Eames insists that design is fundamentally “a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose,” although superior designs “may later be judged as art.”

Today, Tupper’s polyethylene pitcher and creamer reside in the Museum of Modern Art, along with his tumblers, bowls and ingenious popsicle molds, called “Ice Tups.” Curators have included Tupperware products in exhibitions on mid-century design and most recently in the 2011 exhibit “What was Good Design? MoMA’s Message, 1944-1956.”

As Clarke explains, Tupper’s products embodied modernism’s “ideal of a tasteful, restrained and mass-produced artifact, free of inauthentic decoration and gratuitous ornament.”

Tupperware continues to release products that are sleek, affordable and durable, like the Eco Water Bottle. Tupperware

With their clean lines and elegant curves, they fused form and function. The plastic used in Tupperware products is top-shelf – aesthetically pleasing, meaningful and durable.

In today’s Tupperware products, we also see a refined design. Take the Eco Water Bottle. Its sleek curves – together with its softly translucent pink, blue and turquoise variations – conjure glass. The concave center looks pretty and fits the hand.

Tales from Tupper’s wares

Tupperware products continue to play a role in our cultural conscious. A friend who lent me her Ice Tups told me that she’ll always associate it with early memories of her mother.

In one “Seinfeld” episode, Kramer frantically tries to recover his Tupperware container that he’d loaned to someone, while Jimmy of “American Horror Story” causes mayhem at a Tupperware Party. Meanwhile, the synthwave band Tupper Ware Remix Party spins 80s-inspired dance tracks.

Can you relate to Kramer?

Non-biodegradable plastic like Tupperware containers will be part of Earth’s future for centuries. The Plastics Free July initiative has advocated against single-use plastics, like bags and straws. Luckily, Tupperware products are reusable, and the stories we tell about them will continue to reinvent our relationships with a material we won’t – and can’t – let go of.





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