Aretha Franklin has worn some memorable ensembles in her day, and she’ll be unusually dressed at the upcoming American Music Masters tribute concert honoring her achievements: the 18-time Grammy Award winner will don academic regalia as she accepts an honorary degree from Case Western Reserve University.
Case Western Reserve President Barbara R. Snyder will confer the Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of Franklin’s contributions to and achievement in American culture.
While honorary degrees typically are awarded during the university’s spring Commencement ceremonies, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first female inductee will receive her degree at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 5 during the American Music Master’s tribute concert at the PlayhouseSquare State Theatre. The concert concludes the weeklong celebration, “Lady Soul: the Life and Music of Aretha Franklin,” a reflection on Franklin’s legacy and contributions to popular music.
Witnessing the event will be concert performers, including Hall of Famers Dennis Edwards (of the Temptations), Ronald Isley (of the Isley Brothers) and Spooner Oldham, 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee Chaka Khan, as well as Ms. Lauryn Hill, Patti Austin, Carla Cook, Melinda Doolittle, Mike Farris and Cissy Houston.
The honorary degree is reflective of the long-standing collaboration between the Rock Hall and Case Western Reserve. For 16 years, the university’s College of Arts and Sciences has partnered with the Rock Hall to provide an educational tribute to American Music Masters honorees. It continues its commitment to the study of popular music with the recent establishment of a Rock and Popular Music Institute in the College of Arts and Sciences.
The university’s Board of Trustees approved Franklin as an honorary degree candidate during its meeting on Oct. 15 in recognition of her excellence in the performing arts. She also is being recognized for her valuable work during the civil rights movement.
Mary E. Davis, chair of the university’s Department of Music, nominated Franklin for the degree, citing Franklin as a voice in American social, political and cultural history.
“Her songs are the soundtrack to an era of change and empowerment, documenting and resonating with the civil rights movement,” Davis said.
With her origins in gospel, Franklin developed her own sound, mixing sacred and secular styles—from jazz and blues to hymns and spirituals, Davis said.
Franklin was born in Memphis and raised in Detroit surrounded by the beat of Motown and gospel from New Bethel Baptist Church where her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, led his congregation and was at the forefront of the civil rights movement.
In 1956, at age 14, she recorded Spirituals and launched a career that would enrich popular music with such hits as “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You,” “Do Right Woman-Do Right Man,” “Dr. Feelgood,” and her rendition of Otis Redding’s “Respect” that soared to the top of the charts.
Her 40-year career has resulted in sales of 75 million records, among which 45 were Top Forty singles. She landed 98 times on the R&B charts—with 20 No. 1 hits.
The conferring of the degree is “an extraordinary moment of recognition for one of the greatest musicians of our time,” Davis said.