Aretha Franklin is the “Queen of Soul” and the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
She is a singer of great passion and control whose finest recordings define the term soul music in all its deep, expressive glory.
“I don’t think there’s anybody I have known who possesses an instrument like hers and who has such a thorough background in gospel, the blues and the essential black-music idiom,” noted Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, where much of Franklin’s best work was done. “She is blessed with an extraordinary combination of remarkable urban sophistication and deep blues feeling... The result is maybe the greatest singer of our time.”
Aretha was born in Memphis and grew up in Detroit. Her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was the charismatic pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church, which he turned into a large and thriving institution. His services were broadcast locally and in other urban markets around the country, and 60 of his sermons (including the legendary “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest”) were released in album form. One of the best-known religious orators of the day, Rev. Franklin was a friend and colleague of Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and other key figures in the civil-rights movement.
On the musical side, some of the greatest vocalists of the gospel age were acquaintances and guests in the Franklin household. Aretha and her siblings – sisters Erma and Carolyn and brothers Cecil and Vaughn – grew up hearing the likes of Clara Ward (her greatest influence), Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland both in their father’s church and the family’s living room.
From an early age, Aretha sang at her father’s behest during services at New Bethel. Her first recordings turned up on an album called Spirituals, recorded at the church when she was only 14. (It also included material by gospel singer Sammie Bryant and C.L. Franklin.) Spirituals was released locally on the J.V.B. label in 1956 and re-released on the Battle label in 1962. Aretha’s five tracks formed the basis of the 1964 album Songs of Faith: The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin, issued on Checker (Chess Records’ companion label), with additional material recorded by Franklin at services in other locales. In her autobiography, Aretha notes that some of it came from a performance at the Oakland Arena. As a teenager, Aretha accompanied her father on gospel bills and services as far away as California and the Deep South.
Although she was firmly rooted in gospel, Franklin also drew from such blues and jazz legends as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn as she developed her singing style. On the male side, she was inspired by Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke (both with and without the Soul Stirrers). From the emerging world of youthful doo-wop groups and early soul, Aretha enjoyed the likes of LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Little Willie John, the Falcons (featuring Wilson Pickett), and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
Out of an array of influences both sacred and secular, Franklin forged a contemporary synthesis that would speak to the Sixties generation in the revolutionary new language of soul music. As Jerry Wexler, Aretha’s longtime producer, observed: “Clearly, Aretha was continuing what Ray Charles had begun – the secularization of gospel, turning church rhythms, church patterns and especially church feelings into personalized love songs.”
It took Aretha awhile to find that fire in the studio. Before she signed with Atlantic, she spent six years at Columbia Records. She was signed to the label in 1960 by John Hammond, the label’s legendary producer and talent scout, who’d heard a demo she cut in New York Her tenure at Columbia yielded nine R&B hits (the most memorable being “Today I Sing the Blues” and “Runnin’ Out of Fools”). She also scored some pop crossovers (“Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” and “Won’t Be Long”) that were was far removed from the fiery, gospel-fueled soul for which she would become known.
Hammond produced Franklin’s most satisfying Columbia sides, but overall the nine albums she cut for the label failed to fully tap her capabilities. Paired with pop-minded producers, she dabbled in a variety of styles without truly finding her voice. Franklin was never averse to the idea of crossover music, being a connoisseur of pop and show tunes, but she needed to interpret them in her own soulful way. In Hammond’s words, “I cherish the albums we made together, but Columbia was a white company who misunderstood her genius.”
Jerry Wexler was waiting in the wings to sign Franklin when her contract with Columbia expired. With her switch to Atlantic in 1966, Aretha proceeded to revolutionize soul music with some of the genre’s greatest recordings. Her most productive period ran from 1967 through 1972. The revelations began with her first Atlantic single, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You),” a smoldering performance that unleashed the full force of Franklin’s mezzo-soprano. Offering call-and-response background vocals on this and other tracks were Aretha’s sisters, Carolyn and Erma. The Sweet Inspirations, a Memphis-based vocal quartet that included Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney), also contributed background vocals to Aretha’s work in the studio and onstage.
Franklin’s greatest triumph –and an enduring milestone in popular music – was “Respect.” Her fervent reworking of the Otis Redding-penned number can viewed in hindsight as an early assertion of selfhood in the women’s movement. It was the opening track on I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, her classic first album for Atlantic. Other memorable tracks from this pivotal release are “Do Right Woman - Do Right Man,” “Dr. Feelgood” and her cover of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke’s civil rights-era anthem. The Rolling Stone Album Guide contends that I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You “may stand as the greatest single soul album of all time.”
Of her work at Atlantic Records during that charmed period, Franklin offered these recollections in her autobiography: “Jerry [Wexler] handled all the technical aspects and made sure I put my personal stamp on these songs. Atlantic provided TLC – tender loving care – in a way that made me feel secure and comfortable....Putting me back on piano helped Aretha-ize the new music....The enthusiasm and camaraderie in the studio were terrific, like nothing I had experienced at Columbia. This new Aretha music was raw and real and so much more myself. I loved it!”
Working closely with producer Jerry Wexler, engineer Tom Dowd and arranger Arif Mardin – a production team that was on-board for Franklin’s greatest work at Atlantic – she followed her debut for Atlantic with a torrent of strong recordings. Her next three albums – Aretha Arrives (1967), Lady Soul (1968) and Aretha Now (1968) – included “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Baby, I Love You,” “Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby),” and a soulful rendering of Carole King’s “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like).” Her fifth Atlantic album,Aretha in Paris (1968), was record live before an appreciative European audience.
It was during the triumphant year of 1968 that Aretha was anointed the Queen of Soul. Legendary deejay Pervis Spann, the Blues Man, did the honors, ceremoniously placing a crown atop her head during a performance at Chicago’s Regal Theater. The honorific has endured, and no one disputes it.
The Seventies brought continued success to Franklin. In the early years of that decade, she released such critically acclaimed albums as Spirit in the Dark (1970), Aretha Live at Fillmore West (1971), Young, Gifted and Black (1972) and Amazing Grace (1972). Spirit in the Dark and Young, Gifted and Black found Franklin tapping into themes of resiliency and empowerment. Spirit in the Dark was her most autobiographical album, featuring five songs penned by Franklin – more than on any other album of hers, before or since – and thematically driven by the highs and lows of a recent divorce and new relationship. The title of Young, Gifted and Black tapped into the African-American zeitgeist, while the album itself “may have been my most personal – and most romantic – album to date,” according to Franklin. “Aretha reflected a pride in every facet of the blackness we were fighting to preserve every day,” journalist A. Scott Galloway wrote of the album in Urban Network.
Aretha Live at Fillmore West, by contrast, introduced the Queen of Soul to a hip, white audience. It was recorded over the course of three nights at Bill Graham’s San Francisco venue with a crack band that included keyboardist Billy Preston, guitarist Cornell Dupree, drummer Bernard Purdie, saxophonist King Curtis, and the Memphis Horns. Ray Charles was brought onstage from the audience by Aretha herself for an impromptu duet on “Spirit in the Dark.” Amazing Grace found Franklin accompanied by James Cleveland (former music director at her father’s church in Detroit) and his Southern California Community Choir. It was a landmark gospel recording that returned Aretha to the music of the church.
In addition to making albums with Jerry Wexler – the 14th and final of which, You, was released in 1975 – Aretha tried working with other producers while at Atlantic. Her collaborators included such renowned figures as Quincy Jones (Hey Now Hey [The Other Side of the Sky], 1973) and Curtis Mayfield (Sparkle, 1976). Her tenure with Atlantic came to an end in 1979 after twelve years and nineteen albums. During this same year, her father was shot during a home robbery, leaving him in a coma from which he never recovered.
Aretha signed to Arista Records, a label founded by former Columbia Records president Clive Davis. In the Eighties, she recorded everything from dance pop to sacred gospel for Arista. She began scaling the upper reaches of the charts again with “Jump to It” and “Get It Right” (both produced by rising star Luther Vandross). She followed these with two more sizable mid-Eighties dance-floor hits, “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.”
In 1987, Franklin scored the second Number One pop hit of her career – “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” a duet with George Michael – which came exactly 20 years after she topped the charts with “Respect.” Aretha teamed up with Keith Richard in 1986 for a rousing version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that appeared in the Whoopi Goldberg movie of the same name.
Also in 1987, Aretha returned to her roots by recording a gospel album at New Bethel Baptist Church, the very same Detroit institution at which her father had presided for so many years. Entitled One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, it earned strong reviews and won a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance. On the pop side, she struck more gold at decade’s end with “Through the Storm,” a duet with Elton John, and “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be,” a duet with Whitney Houston.
The Nineties started off slowly for Franklin, with only one major hit (“Willing to Forgive,” in 1994) to show for most of the decade. However, one of the stellar moments of her career occurred at the Grammy Awards ceremony on February 25, 1998. Subbing at the last minute for Luciano Pavarotti (who was too ill to perform), Franklin brought the house down with her resounding performance of the operatic aria “Nessum Dorma,” from Puccini’s Turandot. Proving her continuing viability as a contemporary artist, Franklin scaled the charts soon after with “A Rose Is Still a Rose” (Number Five R&B, Number 26 pop), which was written and produced by Lauryn Hill (late of the Fugees).
The hits have come as recently as 2003, when “The Only Thing Missin’” and “Wonderful,” from So Damn Happy, became popular album tracks. Incidentally, with the release of that album, Aretha had now been with Arista longer than Atlantic. Moreover, she’d managed the incredible feat of having hits in five consecutive decades.
As a measure of her impact, Aretha Franklin has charted 43 Top Forty singles since 1961. Franklin has also earned 18 Grammy Awards, the most recent coming in 2007. In addition, she has sung at the inaugurations of two U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and received the Presidential Medal of Honor from another (George W. Bush).
Franklin suffered some health issues in 2010, including broken ribs and a major surgery. However, she released a new album in 2011 (A Woman Falling Out of Love) and returned to live performing in better health and high spirits.
All along, the basis of Aretha Franklin’s success – and the essence of soul music - has been her ability to communicate. “Music is my way of communicating that part of me I can get out front and share,” she told Essence magazine in 1973. “It’s what I have to give; my way of saying, ‘Let’s find one another.’”
Aretha Franklin (vocals, piano; born March 25, 1942)