Written by Paul Tingen
Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul, and one of the biggest names in American music. She has been called “The Voice of Black America,” as well as “America’s Truest Voice,” “the voice that gave America its heart and soul,” and “the greatest singer in US history.”
Aretha Franklin’s achievements are nothing short of stunning. Over a career spanning an amazing seven decades, 112 of her singles entered the Billboard charts, and she released 39 studio albums, 8 live albums, and 58 compilation albums. She won 18 Grammy Awards, including eight Grammy Awards in a row for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, from 1968 to 1975.
In 1987, she was the first female artist to be inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall Of Fame. She came in at number one in Rolling Stone magazine’s top 100 of Greatest Singers of All Time. In 2005, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor. She also was active in the American Civil Rights movement.
So who was Aretha Franklin, and why and how exactly did she become one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and changed not only the course of music, but of American culture as a whole?
Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father was the famous Reverend C.L. Franklin, and her mother, Barbara Franklin, an accomplished piano player and gospel singer. The family moved to Detroit when Aretha was five, where her father became pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church. Because of her father’s infidelities, her mother moved back to Buffalo in 1948. She died in 1952 at the age of 34.
While living with her father, the young Aretha was exposed to many of the elements that would later shape her career. The Reverend C.L. Franklin was one of the most popular preachers of the era, and well-known across the US through tours and radio appearances. He was an extremely gifted speaker, and called “the man with the million-dollar voice.”
C.L. Franklin’s sermons were routinely complemented with gospel music. His celebrity status meant that a young Aretha would watch wide-eyed as scores of celebrities came to the family house. Among them were gospel stars like Clara Ward, James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke, as well as jazz musicians like Nat Cole, Art Tatum, and Oscar Peterson. C.L. Franklin also was a Civil Rights activist, and Martin Luther King Jr. was yet another famous regular house guest.
Aretha had begun to learn to play piano, one of the staple instruments of gospel music, and started singing solos in the New Bethel Baptist church by the time she was 12. Aretha performed in many of the churches where her father spoke, and, recognizing her talents, he started managing her. He organized a recording deal for Aretha with J.V.B. Records, which released her first single, “Never Grow Old,” in 1956, when she was still only 14.
Sam Cooke was one of the first gospel singers to cross over to pop. Franklin decided that she wanted to go down the same route, and her father managed to sign her to Columbia Records in 1960. Aretha enjoyed her first single in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961, with “Won’t Be Long,” and later that year she had her first international hit with “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” Franklin was named “new-star female vocalist in Downbeat magazine in 1962, and she was called “Queen of Soul” for the first time, by radio personality Pervis Spann.
Several more moderately successful singles and albums followed, but Aretha Franklin grew increasingly frustrated with Columbia trying to push her into jazz and easy-listening directions, and in general not honoring her gospel roots. When her contract expired in 1966, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler signed her to the label.
In January 1967, Wexler decided to take his new protégé to FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, because he’d had great results there recording with a group of local, white musicians called the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, also known as The Swampers, for their funky, soulful Southern ‘swamp’ sound.
The session has been called “one of the most momentous in the history of rhythm and blues.” It involved whiskey, fist-fights and life-long falling outs between several of the protagonists. Despite the melee, the recording of one song was completed, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” which Franklin herself called “the turning point of my career.” At Columbia, Franklin hadn’t had much input in the musical arrangements, nor did she play a lot of piano. But when Wexler asked Franklin to sing and play piano at the same time, it immediately anchored the feel and rhythm of the song.
Ten days after the momentous session at FAME, Franklin, Wexler, Dowd and most of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section reconvened at Atlantic Recording Studios in New York, with Arif Mardin present as second engineer for these sessions. The company recorded songs by Otis Redding (“Respect”), Sam Cooke (“Good Times” and “A Change Is Gonna Come”), Henry Glover (“Drown In My Own Tears”) and several Franklin originals.
The results were a revelation. “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” was a number one on the R&B charts, and in April of that year Franklin’s cover of “Respect” went to number one in the pop charts. The album, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, went gold. At 24, Aretha Franklin had found her true voice and musical direction. The years 1967-1972, when she worked with producers and arrangers Wexler, Tom Down and Mardin, can be called her classic period.
The best-selling and critically-lauded albums Franklin made during those years include Lady Soul and Aretha Now (both 1968), Spirit in the Dark (1970), Young, Gifted and Black (1972), and the live albums Aretha Live at Filmore West (1971), and Amazing Grace (1972). The latter became the best-selling gospel album of all time, and also saw her first producer credit. Live footage from the performance was released in 2018 as a feature movie, also called Amazing Grace. Franklin released 57 singles in total during her Atlantic years, and most of them became hits.
“Respect” was the standout track during this era. It defined her and became her signature song. Franklin changed the lyrics’ meaning from a desperate plea from a man to his wife, to that of a strong statement by an independent woman who knows what she wants and sets her own boundaries. The song became rallying cry for the Women’s Rights as well as the Civil Rights movements.
The song earned Franklin two Grammy Awards, and it was number five on Rolling Stone’s list of ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time,’ while the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts included it on a list of Songs of The Century.
Franklin’s classic period came to an end in 1973 with the album Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), which was co-produced by Quincy Jones and Franklin, and a commercial and critical failure. She retook herself with Let Me in Your Life (1974), inviting her old production team of Wexler, Dowd and Mardin back in the studio.
Franklin left Atlantic in 1979, and signed with Arista in 1980. The case has been made that she had the best eighties run of all sixties stars. In reality, Franklin’s career from 1973 onwards followed an unpredictable zigzag course that alternated between a considerable amount of amazing highs, some lows, and a lot in between. But everything she did was graced and elevated by her matchless vocals.
Highlights from these years include her appearance in the Blues Brothers movie in 1980, and a 1981 Grammy Award for her steaming cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming,” featuring Marcus Miller playing a spectacular bass line. In 1985 Franklin enlisted the services of Narada Michael Walden for her album Whose Zoomin Who? It went platinum, and the title track and a collaboration with The Eurythmics, “Sisters Are Doing it for Themselves,” were big hits.
Franklin’s album A Rose Is Still A Rose (1998) saw her working with several contemporary artists, amongst them Lauryn Hill on the title track, and Sean Combs and Jermaine Dupri. In the same year, 1998, Franklin also made news around the world for stepping in at the last moment at the Grammy Awards ceremony for an ill Luciano Pavarotti, and singing his operatic parts.
Franklin gave her final performance was on November 7, 2017, in New York City, as part of Elton John’s 25th anniversary gala, in benefit of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, She died on August 16, 2018, from cancer, at the age of 76. The Grammy Awards ceremony in February 2019 ended with a tribute to Franklin and her career.
A great voice had fallen silent, but her influence continues to be heard in every soul singer alive today, every woman or black person who demands respect, and the world still wells up whenever and wherever her best recordings are played.
© 2021 Paul Tingen.