Aretha Franklin (vocals, piano; born March 25, 1942)
Aretha Franklin is the undisputed “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. As Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun observed, “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.…She is blessed with an extraordinary combination of remarkable urban sophistication and of the deep blues feeling that comes from the Delta. The result is maybe the greatest singer of our time.”
Franklin was born in Memphis and grew up in Detroit, where her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, served as pastor at the New Bethel Baptist Church. One of the best-known religious orators of the day, Rev. Franklin was a friend and colleague of Martin Luther King. Aretha began singing church music at an early age, and recorded her first album, The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin, at fourteen. Her greatest influence was her aunt, Clara Ward, a renowned singer of sacred music. Beyond her family, Franklin drew from masters of the blues (Billie Holiday), jazz (Sarah Vaughn) and gospel (Mahalia Jackson), forging a contemporary synthesis that spoke to the younger generation in the new language of soul.
Aretha signed with Columbia Records in 1960 after A&R man John Hammond heard a demo she cut in New York. She remained at Columbia for six years, cutting ten albums that failed to fully tap into her capabilities. Paired with pop-minded producers, she dabbled in a variety of styles without 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 uncompromising 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 Carolyn and Erma Franklin (Aretha’s sisters) and Cissy Houston.
Franklin’s greatest triumph - and an enduring milestone in popular music - was “Respect.” Her fervent reworking of the Otis Redding-penned number can now be viewed as an early volley 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. (Cooke had been a frequent visitor to the Franklin family’s household when Aretha was growing up.) According to The Rolling Stone Album Guide, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You “may stand as the greatest single soul album of all time.”
Working closely with producer Jerry Wexler, engineer Tom Dowd and arranger Arif Mardin, Franklin followed her triumphant first album with recordings that furthered her claim to the title “Queen of Soul.” 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.”
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); Young, Gifted and Black (1972); Live at Fillmore West (1971); and Amazing Grace. The first two of these tapped into themes of black pride and feminine empowerment, while the latter - a double album that found her accompanied by James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir - brought her back to the church.
Her lengthy tenure with Atlantic came to an end in 1979 after twelve years and nineteen albums. In the Eighties she recorded everything from gospel to dance music for Arista Records, finding the upper reaches of the charts with “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.” In 1987 Franklin had the second Number One hit of her career - “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” a duet with George Michael - which came exactly twenty years after she topped the chart with “Respect.” Aretha teamed up with Rolling Stone Keith Richard in 1986 for a version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that appeared in the Whoopi Goldberg movie of the same name. She struck gold again in 1989 with “Through the Storm,” a duet with Elton John. Proving her durability, Franklin scaled the charts in 1998 with “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” written and produced by Lauryn Hill.
As a measure of her impact, Aretha Franklin has charted more Top Forty singles - forty-five in all, since 1961 - than any other female performer. The basis of her success has been communication.
“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.”