Aretha Franklin (born 1942) had a modest beginning as a gospel singer in Detroit before becoming known as the "Queen of Soul."
When asked by Patricia Smith of the Boston Globe how she felt about being called the "Queen of Soul," Aretha Franklin's reply was characterized by grace but no false modesty. "It's an acknowledgment of my art," she mused. "It means I am excelling at my art and my first love. And I am most appreciative." Since she burst onto the public consciousness in the late 1960s with a batch of milestone recordings, Franklin has served as a standard against which all subsequent soul divas have been measured.
The combination of Franklin's gospel roots and some devastating life experiences have invested her voice with a rare—and often wrenching—authenticity. "It was like I had no idea what music was all about until I heard her sing," confessed singer-actress Bette Midler, as cited in Ebony. Though Franklin's work in later decades has rarely matched the fire—or the sales figures—of her most celebrated singles, she has remained an enduring presence in contemporary music. The release of several CD retrospectives and the announcement in 1995 that she would publish an autobiography and start her own record label seemed to guarantee that her influence would continue unabated.
Franklin was raised in Detroit, the daughter of famed minister C. L. Franklin and gospel singer Barbara Franklin, who left the family when Aretha was small and died shortly thereafter. The singer told Ebony's Laura B. Randolph, "She was the absolute lady," although she admits that memories of her mother are few. The Reverend Franklin was no retiring clergyman; he enjoyed the popularity and, to some degree, the lifestyle of a pop star. He immediately recognized his daughter's prodigious abilities, and offered to arrange for piano lessons. However, the child declined, instead teaching herself to play by listening to records.
Franklin's talent as a singer allowed her to perform with her father's traveling gospel show. She sang regularly before his congregation at Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church as well, where her performance of "Precious Lord," among other gospel gems, was captured for posterity. She was 14 years old but already a spellbinding performer. Producer Jerry Wexler—who shepherded Franklin to greatness on behalf of Atlantic Records some years later—was stunned by the 1956 recording. "The voice was not that of a child but rather of an ecstatic hierophant [a priest in ancient Greece]," he recalled in his book Rhythm and the Blues.
Franklin's life was no church social, however. She became a mother at age 15 and had her second child two years later. "I still wanted to get out and hang with my friends," she recollected to Ebony's Randolph, "so I wanted to be in two places at the same time. But my grandmother helped me a lot, and my sister and my cousin. They would babysit so I could get out occasionally."
Although first inspired by gospel music, Franklin soon became interested in non-religious music. After receiving her father's encouragement, she traveled to New York in 1960, embarked on vocal and dance lessons, and hired a manager. She then began recording demonstration tapes. Like singer-songwriter-pianist Ray Charles, who has often been credited with the invention of "soul music," Franklin brought the fire of gospel to pop music, her spiritual force in no way separated from her earthy sexuality.
Collaborations Launched Career
Celebrated Columbia Records executive John Hammond was so taken by Franklin's recordings that he signed her immediately. Her first Columbia album was issued in the fall of 1960. While a few singles made a respectable showing on the charts, it was clear that the label wasn't adequately showcasing her gifts, either in its choice of material or production. "I cherish the recordings we made together," remarked Hammond in Rhythm and the Blues, "but, finally, Columbia was a white company [that] misunderstood her genius."
Franklin's manager at the time, Ted White, was also her husband; they agreed that she should pursue other options when her contract expired. Wexler leapt at the opportunity to sign her to Atlantic, and eventually he, Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd produced Franklin's first Atlantic sides.
Wexler brought Franklin to the Florence Alabama Music Emporium (FAME) studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record with a unique group of musicians adept in soul, blues, pop, country, and rock. This crew was stunned by Franklin's power and prowess. Accompanying herself on piano, she deftly controlled the tone and arrangement of the songs she performed. Backing vocals were provided either by her sisters Carolyn and Erma or by the vocal group the Sweet Inspirations, which featured Cissy Houston, mother of future singing star Whitney Houston. Wexler also brought in young rock guitarists Duane Allman and Eric Clapton for guest spots.
Unfortunately, only one of two songs—"I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)"—was finished when White and one of the musicians had a drunken row; White grabbed Franklin and they vanished for a period of weeks. Wexler balanced jubilation with anxiety, as radio programmers around the country embraced "I Never Loved a Man," and distributors clamored for an album. But the artist was nowhere to be found. At last she surfaced in New York, where she completed the unfinished "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," and in Wexler's words, "the result was perfection."
Franklin's first album for Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You), was released in 1967, and several hit-filled LPs followed. During this crucial period she enjoyed a succession of smash singles that included the rollicking "Baby I Love You," the pounding groove "Chain of Fools," the supercharged "Think," (which she wrote), the tender "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman," and a blistering take on Otis Redding's "Respect." The latter two would become Franklin's signature songs.
Franklin's version of "Respect," coming as it did at a crucial point for black activism, feminism, and sexual liberation, was particularly potent. Wexler noted that Franklin took Redding's more conventional take on the song and "turned it inside out, making it deeper, stronger, loading it with double entendres." What's more, he noted, "The fervor in Aretha's magnificent voice" implied not just everyday respect but "sexual attention of the highest order," as implied by the "sock it to me" backup chorus she and her sisters devised.
Writer Evelyn C. White, in an Essencepiece, referred to "Respect" as a revolutionary force in her own life. Franklin's "impassioned, soulful licks and sly innuendos about sexual pleasure made me feel good about myself," she wrote, "both as a black American and as a young girl about to discover sex." Eventually, the song would become an American pop standard. At the time of its release, however, it served primarily as a fight song for social change, and went on to score two trophies at that year's Grammy Awards.
Franklin's voice was crucial to the soundtrack of the era, and not just as a record playing on the radio. Franklin's father was a close friend of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family. When the crusading minister was assassinated in 1968, Franklin was enlisted to sing at his funeral. Wexler described her performance of "Precious Lord" as "a holy blend of truth and unspeakable tragedy."
Franklin also sang the National Anthem at the Democratic Party's riot-marred 1968 convention in Chicago. Yet even as her soulful wail soothed a number of difficult national transitions and transformations, Franklin's own changes were hidden from view. "I think of Aretha as 'Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows,"' Wexler wrote. "Her eyes are incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain. Her depressions could be as deep as the dark sea. I don't pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura."
Despite her inner turmoil, Franklin enjoyed phenomenal commercial success during these years. A number of other blockbuster Atlantic albums followed her debut on the label, and she proceeded to take home Grammys every year between 1969 and 1975. Instead of slowing down after all her overwhelming success, she continued to explore rock and pop records for new material and recorded cover versions of songs by the Beatles, Elton John, the Band, Paul Simon, Jimi Hendrix, and many others. "She didn't think in terms of white or black tunes, or white or black rhythms," noted Wexler. "Her taste, like her genius, transcended categories."
In 1972 Franklin sang at the funeral of gospel giant Mahalia Jackson, which suggested her stature in the gospel world; it was no surprise when Amazing Grace, an album of church music she recorded with Wexler, soared up the pop charts that year. At the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977, she provided an a capella rendition of "God Bless America."
Triumphed Despite Turmoil
Having parted ways with husband/manager Ted White some years earlier, Franklin married actor Glynn Turman in 1978. They divorced six years later. By the end of the 1970s, her record sales had dwindled, but she took an attention-getting turn in the Blues Brothers movie, in which she both acted and sang. The film and the Blues Brothers albums, recorded by Saturday Night Live funnymen and blues and soul fanatics Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, helped fuel a new mainstream interest in 1960s soul.
In 1980 Franklin elected to leave Atlantic and sign with Arista Records. The label's slick production and commercial choice of material earned greater sales than she had enjoyed for some time, particularly for the single "Freeway of Love." She earned three more Grammys during the decade. Nonetheless, Dave DiMartino of Entertainment Weekly grumbled that most of her hits at Arista "have been assembled by big-name producers like Narada Michael Walden and might have easily featured another singer entirely—like, say, label mate Whitney Houston" ; DiMartino also objected to the relentless pairing of Franklin with other stars for much-hyped duets, remarking, "Like … Aretha Franklin needs a gimmick?"
In 1979 Franklin's father was shot by a burglar in his home and fell into a coma. He died several years later, having never regained consciousness. As Ebony's Randolph wrote, "When you've said as many goodbyes as Aretha, it's impossible not to be palpably shaped by loss." The singer cited a point during her father's hospitalization as the most difficult decision of her life. "We had to have a trach [a tracheotomy, a procedure that involves cutting through the vocal chords]," she confided, "and we were afraid it would affect his voice, which was certainly his living."
But beyond this and other painful incidents, further triumphs lay ahead for Franklin. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance, was the subject of an all-star documentary tribute broadcast on public television, sang at the inauguration of another president, Bill Clinton, in 1993, and won a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1995. Franklin might not have been the commercial powerhouse that some of her younger acolytes, like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, but she definitely had become an institution.
Franklin—who moved back to the Detroit area in the mid-1990s—announced plans for an autobiography and also made public her intention to start a record label, which would be called World Class Records. "I'm looking for space," she told the Boston Globe. "I'm the CEO." She continued to perform, her band by that time featuring two of her sons, Kecalf Cunningham and Teddy Richards.
Other projects, including film and television appearances, were also in the works. "I just strive for excellence pretty much across the board, whether it's as a producer, songwriter or singer," Franklin proclaimed to Boston Globe writer Smith. "I give people what I feel is best, not just what everyone says is 'hot.' I want to do things that are going to be meaningful and inspiring to them one way or another." Asked by the Detroit Free Press if she ever got tired of singing "Respect," the Queen of Soul replied, "Actually, no. I just find new ways of refreshing the song." Similarly, Franklin's voice continues to refresh new listeners.
Further Reading on Aretha Franklin
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard, 1991.
Wexler, Jerry, and David Ritz, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Knopf, 1993.
Boston Globe, June 14, 1991, p. 39; March 21, 1994, p. 30; September 29, 1995, p. 55.
Detroit Free Press, June 10, 1994, p. 3D; June 18, 1994, p. 2A.
Ebony, April 1995, pp. 28-33.
Entertainment Weekly, May 15, 1992, p. 64.
Essence, August 1995, pp. 73-77.
Jet, August 21, 1995, p. 33.
People, February 19, 1996, p. 22.